June 20, 2004

Shooting eggcorns in a barrel

Like blast fishing or jacklighting deer, hunting eggcorns by web search is so easy that it's hardly sporting. All you have to do is to think of a pair of words with the same or similar sounds but different spellings, choose a common usage for one of the pair, and then look for examples in which the other one is substituted.

You'll almost always find plenty of genuine examples:

(link) For one IPFW grad, a flare for the theater led to award-winning costume design
(link) Radiofree West Hartford is looking for few Right Minded Conservatives with a flare for writing and a passion for politics to donate original essays for publication.
(link) Are you a negotiator with a flare for persuasion?

(link) "At last!" replies a hoarse, base voice.
(link) His repertoire includes the main parts for an authentic base voice in the works belonging to Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Glinka and Mussorgsky.
(link) At a young age this pitch is usually high even for a person with a base voice.

along with a few jokes or puns:

(link) Astronomers Acquire a Flare for Forecasting ... Thanks to two pairs of stars doing the cosmic do-si-do and a marathon radio survey, astronomers are now able to spy brewing stellar storms and predict looming flares on stars other than the sun.

In addition to classic eggcorns like the two given above, where people have made a sensible but wrong guess about which words are used in a particular expression, there are more puzzling cases, where there seems to be little or no resonance from any meaning of the substituted word:

(link) However, they use blatant bate and switch tactics with room locations and reservations.
(link) I was ready for a run around, bate and switch or the wrong item shipped, but none of that happened.
(link) I found great prices and I liked how they didn't bate and switch like I've seen a lot of others do.

Apparently these people are just causelessly confused about how to spell "bait" in this expression -- unless these are hypercorrections caused by spill-over from the bated breath vs. baited breath confusion? In any case, there are certainly some examples where we can be quite sure that we are looking at an out-and-out typographical error:

(link) Nearly all of mankind has heard the oft-repeated lines " We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are crated equal; that they are endowed ...
(link) Because every product is not crated equal, we have gathered the largest selection found anywhere.
(link) Not all foam is crated equal, let our experienced staff offer advise on the right urethane foam for your application.

Surely the (staff of the) American ambassador to Equador (the author of the first quote above) knows that Jefferson wrote created and not crated -- but I also have to point out that there are 54 examples of "crated equal" and only 4 of "creted equal", as predicted if the attractive force of the alternative word "crated" is having an effect.

Finally, there are examples that appear to be in a special category of non-native-speaker eggcorns. For example, a certain number of physics instructors seem to have gotten the idea that


describes the emissive power of a "block body" rather than a "black body":

(link) Thermal/block-body radiation and the black hole evaporation.
(link) A more quantitative approach on absorption and emission of radiation in terms of absorptive power and emissive power are explained with specific references to block–body radiation.
(link) Modern Physics : Atomic structure, Block body radiation, Photon, de-Broglie’s Waves, Photoelectric effect, compton effect, Mass-Energy conversion relation.

and as far as I can tell, none of them are native speakers of English. Of course, the vast majority of physicists who are not native speakers of English get this right -- and the vast majority of native speakers of English are unaware of the issue in the first place.

Anyhow, finding eggcorns by this method is so easy that one could imagine programming a computer to systematically hunt down all the eggcorns in the language, on purely distributional grounds. The process would be fun and challenging -- especially for the cases where words are not swapped one-for-one, like acorn=egg corn, or intents and purposes=intensive purposes -- and it would probably be interesting to look at the statistical structure of the resulting set.

Then we'd have to find some other topics to fill this space, but I'm sure that the Lord would provide.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 20, 2004 08:26 AM