Spoonerisms, Mondegreens, Eggcorns, and Malapropisms
Learn what these words mean and whether you've ever spoken a spoonerism or heard a mondegreen.
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Eggcorns have been described only recently as a separate phenomenon. The term was coined in 2003 as a result of a discussion on the Language Log website. The name “eggcorn” comes from a discussion about a woman who misheard the word acorn as eggcorn. Such a change isn't a mondegreen because it doesn't create a new meaning, and it isn't a spoonerism (or a malapropism) because the swapped words sound the same—they're homophones.
Other examples of eggcorns include coming down the pipe instead of coming down the pike, duck tape instead of duct tape**, and chomping at the bit instead of champing at the bit. Many of the most common eggcorns seem to swap in homophones in familiar phrases, such as H-E-R-E for H-E-A-R in hear, hear, B-A-I-L-I-N-G for B-A-L-I-N-G in baling wire, and T-O-W instead of T-O-E in toe the line.
If you think eggcorns are fun, the men who coined the term have written a book called Far From the Madding Gerund.
Finally, there are malapropisms—the only one of these errors without a fun story behind the origin of the name. “Malapropism” is derived from a French phrase meaning “badly for the purpose.” It came into popular usage to describe the silly misuse of words after the playwright Richard Sheridan named one of his characters, who had a habit of ridiculously mixing up words, Mrs. Malaprop. (The play is called The Rivals.)
Malapropisms occur when someone substitutes a similar-sounding word for another word. For example, George Bush was reported to say, “nucular power pants” instead of “nuclear power plants” in 2003, and, in Sheridan’s play, Mrs. Malaprop said, “He's the very pineapple of politeness” instead of “He's the very pinnacle of politeness.”
OK, my brain is starting to hurt keeping these all straight, so I'm going to try to summarize them.
Spoonerisms are what you get when a speaker mixes up sounds, making phrases such as better Nate than lever.
Mondegreens are what you get when listeners mishear words; for example when people think the song lyrics are Sweet dreams are made of cheese instead of Sweet dreams are made of this.
Eggcorns are what you get when people swap homophones in phrases, such as spelling hear, hear H-E-R-E instead of H-E-A-R.
Malapropisms are what you get when someone substitutes a similar-sounding word for another, such as He's the pineapple of politeness instead of He's the pinnacle of politeness.
** A listener named Chris pointed out that duck tape versus duct tape is a controversial eggcorn. There is an excellent discussion of the topic (and how nobody really knows what the original name was) on the Eggcorn Forum.
Fun With Words: What Are Spoonerisms?
Mondegreens: A Short Guide
Am I Right?
John Carroll: Mondegreens
Interesting Things of the Day: Mondegreens and Eggcorns
The Eggcorn Database
Malapropism. Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary
Stoopnagle's Tale is Twisted: Spoonerisms Run Amok by Keen James
The Rails I Tote by Christopher Manson
Runny Babbit, a Billy Sook by Shel Silverstein
Far From the Madding Gerund by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum
'Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy by Gavin Edwards
When a Man Loves a Walnut by Gavin Edwards
He's Got the Whole World in His Pants by Gavin Edwards
The Rivals by Richard Sheridan
Update: "Eggcorn" added to the Oxford English Dictionary Online. So Wrong It's Right by Jan Freeman (September 26, 2010)