August 24, 2007

The allure of eggcorns

It came up a few days ago on the American Dialect Society mailing list, but I had to see it to believe it. In the September issue of the women's magazine Allure (with Britney Spears on the cover) eggcorns and other language errors share the same page with a picture of Jessica Simpson and Eva Longoria. Unfortunately this doesn't involve Mmes. Simpson and Longoria discussing pre-Madonna or any other celebrity eggcorns. That's a missed opportunity, since Jessica Simpson obviously knows a thing or two about linguistic gaffes. Rather, it's all part of Allure's "Insider's Guide to Communication." (See the page scan after the jump.)

The photo of Jessica and Eva consulting an Internet-ready Sidekick adorns an interview with the authors of Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home, presumably because the readers of Allure need to be reassured that starlets read email too. (And they're probably a bit more photogenic than authors David Shipley and Will Schwalbe.) The mention of eggcorns, meanwhile, is in a separate article about Michael Erard's new book, Um... Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, which has a whole chapter on eggcorns and other speech errors collected by our own blunder maven Arnold Zwicky.

As befits a "guide to communication" in a glossy magazine chiefly devoted to beauty tips, Erard's book is treated as if it's in the self-help genre, alerting readers to the "Bad Words" that they should avoid, from eggcorns to disfluencies to mondegreens. The first sentence sounds the alarm: "Linguists estimate a verbal slip — everything from a stray 'um' to a mangled phrase — happens once every 4.4 seconds." (This refers to the pioneering research done in the 1950s by the Yale psychologist George Mahl, who measured the rate of "speech disturbances" in interviews with patients.) Needless to say, the Allure writer doesn't treat eggcorns in the Language-Loggian fashion as "tiny little poems, a symptom of human intelligence and creativity." Indeed, the whole thrust of Erard's argument that verbal blunders "provide a window into what humans really are" is conveniently ignored.

Then again, we should perhaps be grateful that eggcornology is getting even cursory attention from a mainstream magazine like Allure. In Mark Liberman's LSA talk on "the future of linguistics," he imagined a time when mass-media treatment of linguistics could be found in the supermarket checkout line, much as psychological research is handled by Psychology Today. (That magazine, by the way, ran a piece on eggcorns last year, which was laudable except for the misspelling of Geoffrey Pullum's name.) Perhaps the coming era envisioned by Mark is closer at hand than we realize.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at August 24, 2007 12:56 PM