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Mighty oaks from little eggcorns grow

The Monitor's language columnist considers ways that words go wrong in the hands of human beings.

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Linguists love taxonomies – classification schemes – for linguistic phenomena.

Folk etymology, for instance, explains people's incorrect understanding of where a given word comes from. Cutlet, for example, is seen as meaning "a little cut of meat." It really comes from an Old French word for "rib."

Then there are malapropisms, named for Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Mrs. Malaprop. Her spirit lives on with Boston's Mayor Thomas Menino, who has called the lack of parking in the city an "Alcatraz around my neck."

Then there are mondegreens – mishearings of lines of poetry or song, such as the line from a hymn understood by small children as "Gladly the cross-eyed bear."

Now I've learned another term for language gone wrong, sometimes endearingly so: eggcorns.

I've just run across eggcorns in Wendalyn Nichols's Copyediting Tip of the Week newsletter. "Rod iron" for wrought iron is one. "Eggcorn" itself, for acorn, is another. As Ms. Nichols explains, an eggcorn must be a nonstandard reshaping of an established term. The confused terms must be pronounced nearly the same. And finally, "the term substituting for the correct one should represent a reinterpretation that is based on an accurate understanding of the substitute's meaning."

Rod iron is somewhat plausible as a substitute for wrought iron, for instance. It's just not the right word. English is full of these close-but-not-quite pairs.

There's disperse and disburse, for instance. The police disperse (scatter) a crowd, but a bursar disburses funds. But funds can be dispersed, too, I suppose. Imagine someone flying over a congressional district dumping bundles of cash out the windows of a plane.


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