Monday, April 15, 2013

GrammatiCats: Mondegreens and Eggcorns

Yeah, you thought this was going to be Misplaced Modifiers, didn't you?

Okay, well, maybe you didn't.  I did.  I was like, "but maybe I should do mass nouns and count nouns!"  "But misplaced modifiers are more important!"  "But that's what every other grammar-blog's gonna do!"  "But - "

And that's how we got here. 

So what's a mondegreen?
Pinkie Rating: 2

Well, have you ever misheard a song lyric or some famous line or phrase?

Yeah, these are those.  A mondegreen (which came by its name in that very same fashion!) is a mishearing of spoken words, usually a famous lyric or line.  Often with hilarious results.

Little kids do this all the time, especially when we have them recite 19th century poetry in the name of patriotism.  But I guess you can't get too upset, because that's the only way we could arrive at a phrase as delightful as "The Star-Strangled Banana." 

Okay, so what do you-the-writer need to know about mondegreens?  Not terribly much, though the name itself might come in handy for future Googling purposes.

For everyday writing, your real hazard (and the error from which this entry derives its Pinkie Rating) is the eggcorn: it's similar to a mondegreen, but usually refers to a logical mishearing of a common word or phrase, especially when the two are identical in sound (homophones).

acorn --> eggcorn (true story!)
a dog-eat-dog world --> a doggy-dog world
could've / would've / should've --> could of / should of / would of
wind chill factor --> windshield factor
moot point --> mute point
buck naked --> butt naked
coming down the pike --> coming down the pipe
bated breath --> baited breath

Eggcorns can come from anywhere, but I notice that a lot of them seem to be born from archaic words (moot, bated) or those that have little use outside the one single phrase (wind chill, dog-eat-dog) - which won't save you from ridicule if you make one of these mistakes!

(Actually, I have a sneaking suspicion that most of you guys are the type that go bananas when you hear or see other people making these mistakes.  "Oh my God, it's INTENTS AND PURPOSES, not INTENSIVE PURPOSES, you IRREDEEMABLE CLOWNSHOE!")

Finally, eggcorns are distinct from malapropisms, which are misused words or phrases that sound similar to the original (though not identical) but are ridiculously wrong in context.  Yeah, kids pop these off all the time too. 

civil servant --> civil serpent
electoral votes --> electrical votes
croutons --> neutrons
reciprocal --> receptacle
vowels--> bowels

And the all-time hall-of-famer from my own personal experience:

thesis statement --> feces statement

Notice how, unlike eggcorns, malapropisms aren't logical - just ludicrous. You could mishear trim the hat as bin the cat, but it doesn't make a lick of sense.

But of course, accidental misuse invariably gives rise to deliberate word-play, and we use exactly these kinds of 'errors' for much of our humor.

With that said - heard any good ones lately?

Further Reading:

Mrs. Malaprop's Offspring - a motherlode of misunderstandings, from Yogi Berra and Groucho Marx to excerpts from student writing
Grammar Girl: Spoonerisms, Mondegreens, Eggcorns and Malapropisms - a quick rundown of just about every kind of verbal screw-up - the searchable database of misheard song lyrics!
The Eggcorn Database - this is NOT ONLY a giant massive searchable database of eggcorns, BUT ALSO cross-references each one with actual, credible news sources and publications who have made that mistake.  If you've ever embarrassed yourself with a goofy error, let this soothe your soul.

Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!

1. Mystery kitty, courtesy of Jarret O.
2. Apollo, courtesy of Honoré Hillman
3. Shelter kitty!  DFW-area peeps come check him out at the Irving Animal Care Campus
4. Smudge, courtesy of Dr. C
5. Strays that hang out around my apartment.  I've taken to thinking of them as The Oatmeal's funny (and profane!) Bobcats

(Does your kitty want to be a GrammatiCat?  Sign up here!)


  1. This is AMAZING! I knew these things existed, but I never knew there was an official name of them. I love it.

    My pet peeve is 'damp squid' instead of 'damp squib' - grr!

    Oh, and did you know that a woman in England did actually "bin the cat". She got fined for it.

    Bin The Cat

    1. I saw that last night when I was googling to get a good rhyme for my picture! Un-freaking-believable! Like, who does that?! (Apparently somebody made a cracking Twitter account out of it, though. And then a book. Holy mackerel.)

      I'm not sure whether we don't use "damp squib" in the US or whether my particular pocket of it is just ignorant of the term, but that's not one I've run into before. Hooray for knowing a new thing! (And ick for damp squid!)

  2. I wonder if there's a name for an eggcorn that is also a malapropism and borders on being a mondegreen? A word that encompasses all three and then can account for that incorrect term replacing the other one to the point the original word/phrase seems incorrect.

    Like 'duck tape'.

    Another amazing and useful and thoughtfully cat-filled post, my dear.
    Frank the Magnified Cent

    1. Dude, the portmanteau alone would be dizzying. Like, it'd have to be a maleggreen. Or maybe a mondeggism.

      You're right that "duck tape"'s a little hard to classify, though - it's weird (why would you need to tape a duck?) but not hilariously so. And pervasive as all get out! Especially now that there's an actual brand of Duck Tape, with duck mascot and everything. I don't think we're gonna win that one.


    My mother and stepfather are both real bad for "corpral tunnel". I always want to shout, "Aye-aye Captain!" or is that eye-eye??

    1. Haha, it doesn't quite count for this lesson, but I tell you what: the guy who went to the store asking for a box of "tampoons" has made it impossible for me to think of Captain Ahab hurling his harpoon at Moby Dick with a straight face. You have my utmost sympathy!