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."

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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.

Eggcorns suggest a word one has heard but not read. And although they can occur in speech, they're most embarrassing in writing. A nutrition website counsels, "Curve your appetite."

Part of what's going on here is that we use idioms whose origin we've lost touch with. If you use the idiom "toe the line," for instance, as a lock-stock-and-barrel substitute for the Latin-derived verb conform, you may lack the mental imagery that makes clear why it's "toe" and not "tow."

The Eggcorn Database has a listing for "bellweather." A wether is a kind of sheep – a neutered ram, which would serve as a leader of the flock. A shepherd would put a bell around its neck and keep track of the flock by listening for the bell.

In political writing today, a bellwether is a place that is a good indicator of how an election is going: a county that a successful candidate must win. The term has come so loose from its pastoral roots that it's no wonder it's often misspelled "bellweather." It sounds sort of Winslow Homer/L.L.Beanish, doesn't it?

But if eggcorns reflect the use of idioms whose roots we've lost touch with, they also illustrate the way we bring words back to their roots.

Sticklers sniff when they see the phrase "hauled into court." You hail a taxi but properly get haled into court, they note. But that hale, meaning "to drag," is related to haul. So can "hauled into court" be all that wrong?

And if "curve your appetite" is snicker-worthy, well, where did curb come from? From a Latin word, curvus, referring to something bent. The original curb was a (curved) strap under the jaw of a horse, meant to control the critter. The curb between street and sidewalk was originally the (curved) edge of a flower bed in a garden.

Henceforth I'll try to curve my indignation about other people's eggcorns.

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