Spoonerisms, Mondegreens, Eggcorns, and Malapropisms
Learn what these words mean and whether you've ever spoken a spoonerism or heard a mondegreen.
I believe I've said before that speaking and writing are two different skills. Since I'm in a summertime mood, I thought it would be fun to go beyond grammar rules today and talk about some funny errors—such as spoonerisms, mondegreens, eggcorns, and malapropisms—that people make when speaking or listening.
Spoonerisms, mondegreens, eggcorns, and malapropisms are all instances where you hear or say something other than the correct phrase.
“Spoonerisms” are words or phrases where the order of the sounds is mixed up, such as flutterby for butterfly and ossifer for officer. [See this comment; flutterby and ossifer are better classified as metatheses. - GG] They're called spoonerisms after Reverend William Archibald Spooner, who lived in Oxford in the late 1800s and early 1900s and who was reported to rampantly make these slips of the tongue. There are unintentional spoonerisms that don't make sense, such as cimmanon and goys and birls (for cinnamon and boys and girls), and then there are spoonerisms that create new, amusing meanings such as keys and parrots (for peas and carrots) and better Nate than lever (for better late than never).
I confess that on more than one occasion I have called my relatives Gail and Dave, Dale and Gave—sorry!
There are also intentional spoonerisms. For example, Keen James wrote a book called Stoopnagle's Tale Is Twisted: Spoonerisms Run Amok that retells fairytales using spoonerisms. Chapters include “Beeping Sleuty” and “Prinderella and the Since.” Christopher Manson wrote a book called The Rails I Tote, which has 45 spoonerism cartoons for readers to decipher (such as bee tags for tea bags). And Shel Silverstein authored a book called Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook, which obviously uses spoonerisms.
As I was researching this topic, I also came across many spoonerisms that seemed to be intentional attempts to eliminate swear words while still getting the point across. Some of the less offensive examples include nucking futs (from the movie Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star), biserable mastered (from the video game Escape from Monkey Island), bass ackwards, and no wucking furries.
It makes me wonder if Reverend Spooner is grolling over in his rave!
On to mondegreens! Whereas spoonerisms are slips of the tongue, mondegreens are errors of the ears. They are the mishearing of something, usually a song lyric, so that a new meaning is created. For example, in the song “Bad Moon Rising,” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, people have reported mishearing the lyric There's a bad moon on the rise as There's a bathroom on the right.
The name “mondegreen” was coined by a writer named Sylvia Wright who misheard a line from a 17th-century Scottish ballad.
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl of Murray,
And laid him on the green.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for the future of word play), Wright heard the last line as And Lady Mondegreen instead of And laid him on the green.
Wright had imagined a second slaying victim where there was none, and when she discovered the error she decided to name the phenomenon after the nonexistent Lady Mondegreen.
Some of my favorite mondegreens come from children’s misinterpretations of the Pledge of Allegiance. I'm thinking of the scene in the movie Kindergarten Cop where the kids are saying the Pledge, and if I remember right there are lines like I led the pigeons to the flag and One Nation under God, invisible, with liver tea and Justice for all.
There are lots of great mondegreens from popular music. I like these three from The Eurythmics, Toto, and Cyndi Lauper: mistaking Sweet dreams are made of this for Sweet dreams are made of cheese, mistaking I blessed the rains down in Africa for I guess it rains down in Africa, and mistaking When the working day is done, Girls, they want to have fun for What in the world can they get done? Girls, they want to have fun.
If you like mondegreens, Gavin Edwards has written a series of books about them, including 'Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy, When a Man Loves a Walnut, and He's Got the Whole World in His Pants.
I like to imagine the mythical Lady Mondegreen happily singing along.
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)