English language Etymology Linguistics Usage

Tricks our ears and tongues play on us

Q: I enjoyed your posting about Archie Fisher snow, but I’d like explanations of the various howlers: malapropisms, spoonerisms, mondegreens, and eggcorns.

Over the years, we’ve written on the blog about the tricks our ears and tongues play on us, and about the various species of bloopers that result.

But maybe it’s time to say something about the major ones in a single posting.

In Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, we devote a chapter (called “In High Dungeon: And Other Moat Points”) to these amusing accidents of nature.

Here’s a sampling from the book:

“We’re often more creative at abusing language than using it, and as you might expect we have names for the various species of abuse. Mixing up two similar-sounding words (like ‘synecdoche’ and ‘Schenectady’) is called a malapropism (from the French mal à propos, or inappropriate). The name was popularized by a character in The Rivals, an eighteenth-century play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Just about every time Mrs. Malaprop opens her mouth, she bobbles her words. She wants her niece, Lydia Languish, to marry for money instead of love, but Mrs. M complains that the reluctant young woman is ‘as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.’ She regrets that ‘my affluence over my niece is very small,’ but she praises the stubborn Lydia as ‘an object not altogether illegible.’ When her eloquence is called into question, Mrs. Malaprop exclaims: ‘Sure, if I reprehend anything in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!’

“If malapropisms tickle your fancy, then spoonerisms ought to tickle your funny bone. A spoonerism, a slip of the tongue in which parts of words are switched around, is a ‘different fettle of kitsch,’ as the essayist Roger Rosenblatt once put it. The term comes from William Archibald Spooner (1844–1930), a scholar, dean, and warden at New College, Oxford. He was known for his slips of the tongue, though most of those attributed to him (like ‘It is kisstomary to cuss the bride’) are apocryphal. In fact, many of the spoonerisms I’ve come across weren’t slips at all but the deliberate work of punsters. One of my favorites is the songwriter Tom Waits’s quip, ‘I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.’ Of course, we don’t have to search far to find legitimate slips of the tongue. Here’s one from our forty-third president: ‘If the terriers and bariffs are torn down, the economy will grow.’

“If you like rock music, you’ve probably misheard a lyric or two. There’s also a name for this one. A mondegreen is a misunderstanding in which a familiar song lyric, bit of poetry, or popular expression is misinterpreted or misheard. Many schoolchildren, for example, have begun the Pledge of Allegiance with ‘I led the pigeons to the flag,’ and sung in church about ‘Round John Virgin’ or ‘Gladly, the cross-eyed bear.’ The term ‘mondegreen’ was coined by an American writer, Sylvia Wright, who’d misheard an old Scottish ballad when she was a child. What she heard was ‘They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray, / And Lady Mondegreen.’ The real second line was ‘And laid him on the green.’ Rock songs are a rich source of mondegreens. Creedence Clearwater fans, perhaps under the influence of controlled substances, have heard ‘There’s a bathroom on the right’ instead of ‘There’s a bad moon on the rise.’ And many a Jimi Hendrix audience used to join in and sing ‘ ’Scuse me while I kiss this guy’ instead of ‘while I kiss the sky.’ After a while, it became a running joke and even Hendrix joined in. He’d sometimes point to a guy onstage—his bassist, Noel Redding, for instance—while singing the mondegreen version.

“The linguists Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman came up with the term ‘eggcorn’ to describe another kind of blooper: mistaking a word or phrase for a similar-sounding one. The expression was inspired by a woman who used ‘egg corn’ for ‘acorn.’ Think of ‘duck tape’ (for ‘duct tape’) or ‘tough road to hoe’ (it’s ‘row,’ not ‘road’) or ‘tow the line’ (nope, ‘toe’).”

And now we’ll stop, before the subject gets deader than a doorknob.

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