Eggcorns: 48 hilarious examples of slip-of-the-ear errors

Eggcorns are alarmingly common, even in the pages of newspapers. How often have you seen the eggcorn “day-today operations” (instead of day-to-day)

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Tue 21 Dec 2021, 10:34 PM

What, you may well ask, is an eggcorn? It comes from a mishearing of the word “acorn”, and has come to stand for any word or phrase that is mistakenly used in a seemingly plausible way for another word or phrase that it sounds like. We discussed malapropisms, which involve a slip of the tongue; eggcorns are sort of a slip of the ear. Take the expression “Alzheimer’s disease”; someone mishears it as “old-timers’ disease”, and writes it that way in print. That’s an eggcorn.

Eggcorns are alarmingly common, even in the pages of newspapers. How often have you seen the eggcorn “day-today operations” (instead of day-to-day), an amateur philosopher ruminating that “it’s a doggie-dog world” (instead of “dog-eat-dog”) or a witness to an accident quoted as saying, “It happened all over sudden” (instead of all of a sudden)? Common examples of eggcorns include “curve your enthusiasm” (instead of “curb”), “escape goat” (instead of “scapegoat”), and “biting my time” (instead of “biding”).

Many cliches are misremembered as eggcorns: “it was a damp squid” (instead of damp squib), “I was on tender hooks” (instead of on tenterhooks), “it was nipped in the butt” (instead of “nipped in the bud”), “I can’t make heads or tales of it” (instead of “can’t make heads or tails of it”) and “it’s a mute point” (instead of moot point) are typical examples. The expression “for all intents and purposes” is often rendered as “for all intensive purposes.” And if I could have a dirham for each time I have seen the term tow the line (instead of toe the line), I’d be a very rich man indeed.

Normal, routine items lend themselves to eggcorns too. Many speak of “cold slaw” when they mean “coleslaw”. You want someone to get his “just desserts” but think it’s written “just deserves”? Did you seek free reign (free rein) of your property or seek to put a rot iron fence (wrought iron fence) around it? Was it nerve wrecking (nerve-racking) to go through an interview and did you pass mustard (pass muster) after making a last stitch effort (last ditch effort)?

One acquaintance, writing about a relative who was allergic to milk, managed to create two eggcorns in one sentence: “To be pacific (he meant to be specific)”, he said, “he is lack toast and tolerant (he meant lactose intolerant)”. Another talked about an Arab friend whose baby boy was “circus-sized” (the kid was actually normally-proportioned, but had been circumcised). “The UAE is full of ex-patriots,” wrote a correspondent (meaning expatriates).

As with those last two examples, many eggcorns are just one word, misheard and wrongly rendered. Others include bonified (for bona fide), conscious (conscience), parody (parity), prospective (perspective), upmost (utmost), ringer (wringer) and perhaps most forgivably, expresso for espresso. Somebody whom others dislike being around is a “social leper” but an eggcorn calls him a “social leopard”. Either way he might find it difficult to get a room at a local bread and breakfast (bed and breakfast), where he would want to wet his appetite (whet his appetite).

Two-word eggcorns are the most common, from bare witness (bear witness) and bold-faced (bald-faced) lie, to the classic assumption that some words must actually be brand names — like Cadillac converter (catalytic converter) and Chester drawers (chest of drawers). Many a woman has been found after a bad day, curled up in the feeble position (foetal position). My own favourite eggcorn renders prima donna as pre-Madonna! Such mistakes are just a hair’s breadth away from being accurate, unless you wrote an eggcorn there too and assumed they were a hare’s breath away.

But the longer phrases are the most fun: don’t get your dandruff up (don’t get your dander up) if I point out the flaw in the ointment (fly in the ointment), because it’s an old wise tale (old wives’ tale) that peaked my interest (piqued my interest), but it turned out to be much to do about nothing (much ado about nothing)!

As the world records increasing hearing loss and populations grow older and deafer, more and more eggcorns will be unwittingly invented. There’ll be a lot of damp squids curled up in the feeble position. And none of this is a pigment (figment) of my imagination! It’s time, clearly, to give up the goat (give up the ghost)…!

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