The Writer’s Toolbox – A Recipe for Eggcorns

No, don’t get out your mixing bowls?we’re not making omelettes here. In fact, if you’ve used an eggcorn today, you probably did so without realizing it. This week we’ll look at where these oddly named phenomena come from, and how you can eliminate them in your own writing and speaking.

What Came First?
Eggcorns are idiomatic expressions, sayings, and other phrases that are misheard and then misquoted. The misquoted version is then passed around, making it spread far beyond the originator?and perpetuating the confusion.

Eggcorn Example A: His trip seems to have given him a new leash on life.

Correct Example A: His trip seems to have given him a new lease on life.

Eggcorn Example B: I am finally caught up with paperwork, for all intensive purposes.

Correct Example B: I am finally caught up with paperwork, for all intents and purposes.

See how easily the ear and tongue can slip up here? Typically these are phrases that sound similar and that aren’t too far off the mark in terms of meaning, either, so the brain’s less likely to question the usage. “When all is set and done” sounds pretty legit when you think about it?but it’s actually an eggcorn for “when all is said and done.”

Over Time
Most of the time eggcorns are obviously misquotes of a known original, but sometimes they become so common that the original can look wrong instead:

Eggcorn Example C: Don’t pawn off the dirty jobs on me!

Correct Example C: Don’t palm off the dirty jobs on me!

Eggcorn Example D: I’d say she got her just desserts.

Correct Example D: I’d say she got her just deserts.

In fact, if you look at language trend analyzers like Google Ngram Viewer, you can sometimes see the correct usage slowly ceding place to the eggcorn. In these cases?where ordinary people might think your correct version is an error?it’s often better to use a different phrase entirely.

Note too that eggcorns sometimes fall into favour due to questionable etymological origins of the original. For example, “butt naked” is an eggcorn for the phrase “buck naked”; while experts disagree over whether the word “buck” has racist overtones, “butt naked” is a more neutral option (and it sounds pretty accurate, too).

Rooting Out the Problem
How to spot eggcorns in your own writing and speaking, when you’re probably using them without knowing it? Reading widely is your best defense. Grab a dictionary of idioms or regionalisms if you can (libraries often have copies) and look up anything that seems questionable.

The collaborative Eggcorn Database is another great resource (and a wonderful place for language lovers to kill time!), and Google’s Ngram Viewer allows you to compare multiple versions of a given phrase. You can also run searches in the news, on Twitter, and in other social media for new blog posts or linguistic meanderings on eggcorns growing or declining in popularity.

The intersection of hearing, speaking, and writing is one of the most fascinating areas of linguistics, and exploring eggcorns makes a wonderful introduction to the field. Give free reign (hint: that’s an eggcorn) to your curiosity and you’ll be on your way to becoming a bonified (another one) linguist!

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.