Published: 10 June 2014 10 June 2014

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This link was sent to me recently and got me thinking about language errors — in particular the rather confusing array of labels we have for different slips of the ear or brain (so not slops of the tingue, like my embarrassing ‘Piddle Dutch’ in place of ‘Middle Dutch’ during a lecture!).

‘The winter of our disco tent’ falls into the category of the mondegreen (itself a mondegreen involving the misheard lyrics of a 17th century ballad— ‘They have slain the Earl of Murray and Lady Mondegreen’, rather than ‘They have slain the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green’). There are some glorious collections of mondegreens around; my current favourite is the Creedence inspired ‘Have you ever seen Lorraine’ (


When these sorts of mix-ups involve ordinary language, they’re often malapropisms (and who could forget Mrs Malaprop’s ‘the very pineapple of politeness’).These days there’s a new type of malapropism out there, which I’m sure you’re familiar with. I can only describe it as the spell checker malapropism, but it deserves a better label — my favourite example is still one student’s ‘waves of righteous indigestion’.

It’s here we start crossing over into the territory of the newly created eggcorn(itself an eggcorn for acorn). The term was coined by linguists Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum, because they felt that examples like eggcorn weren’t handled by any of the already existing categories of language error. They’re idiosyncratic slips too, but they involve homonyms or near-homonyms, and most importantly they have a logic to them (which Mrs Malaprops’ mistakes don’t really) — coleslaw becomes coldslaw (it is a type of cold salad). When a student in my class came out with rope learning in place of rote learning, he probably had mind expressions such as learn the ropes (more meaningful for him than rarely used rote ‘mechanical manner’)

Slips of the ear/brain can endure and bring about change. When eggcorns spread their wings and whole speech communities start using them, we move into the territory of folk or popular etymology. The line between these is admittedly rather blurred — I tend to think of folk etymology as involving triumphant eggcorns (and just to confuse things, acorn is itself a successful eggcorn!). Running the gauntlet has nothing to do with mailed gloves. The phrase was originally run the gatlop, a ghastly punishment where prisoners ran between two rows of soldiers, forming a lane or gat, while being struck with knotted cords or sticks. Gat appears in place names like Highgate, but otherwise fell out of use. And of course, lope ‘run’ isn't all that usual either.

A lot of these recreations stem from our desire to make sense of weird-looking words or expressions. It’s analogy at work, involving the sorts of tidying-up activities that drive so much of language change. But it itself explains a lot of weirdness, too. Think of those bizarre collocations you find in pub names — Bacchanals probably didn’t make a lot of sense in the 1700s, so people turned their local tavern into the Bag o’ Nails.

I can’t say I find these categories of slips always clear-cut. Some years back I received a memo from the Faculty Office (the uni shall remain unnamed), concerning a Teaching Committee meeting. It began ‘Due to a lack of decorum …..’. Was this remodeling of a lack of a quorum a malapropism? It wasn’t really nonsensical (though I was sure we were all well-behaved!), so it’s more eggcornish. Then again, perhaps it was a deliberate bit of word play, so a pun all along.

And this takes me back to the beginning of this piece and the sign in the camping store that reads ‘Now is the discount of our winter tents’!

Best wishes


A ‘laterdition’ to this post: Tony Abbott’s slips, and other faux pas, were celebrated on American TV recently. Here’s a link.