The quest for hidden eggcorns

These quirky expressions may shed light on what people think they're trying to say.

I had so much fun with the Eggcorn Database last week, I just had to go back for more.

For those just joining us, eggcorn is a coinage from the Language Log bloggers. It refers to a word or phrase whose written form reflects a misunderstanding of a standard term. Eggcorn itself is an eggcorn, a mishearing of acorn.

Many well-read people sometimes mispronounce certain words precisely because they encounter them only in print, not in conversation. Eggcorns, conversely, are the result of people picking up from conversation or the airwaves words they've never met, or don't realize they've met, in print.

I wanted to explore further the list of "hidden eggcorns." And brace yourself for this, reader: It gets subtle.

I quote: "For hidden eggcorns, which do not involve a change in spelling, we often need indirect evidence of the writers' understanding of the expressions they use." And the point is that their understanding is often wrong.

Exhibit A: "The die is cast." We all know this expression, right? We use it to mean there's no going back; what's done can't be undone.

But what do the actual words mean? One online source says, "This has nothing to do with gambling or dice; instead, it refers to a mold (die) which has been cast (made).

Once the mold is made, everything which comes from it, will have the shape of the mold."

Some people write it as "the dye is cast." As I searched for examples "in the wild," though, Google tried to dissuade me. And some I did find were headline puns, as on a story from Texas about "environmentally friendly" green dye sprayed into the San Antonio River for St. Patrick's Day.

Classicists among us, and perhaps "Star Trek" fans, too, recognize "the die is cast" as a quote from Julius Caesar, uttered as he crossed the Rubicon. This was a river in northern Italy before it was a figure of speech.

"The die is cast" lives on as a set phrase whose metaphorical meaning is clearer than its literal meaning. We forget that "die" is the singular of "dice." (Who has a fuzzy die dangling from the rearview mirror?) And we know forecast and broadcast and webcast, but forget that cast itself means "throw."

But if the meaning isn't completely clear, there is consensus on when it's the right expression to utter. You don't have to understand it to use it properly.

Another hidden eggcorn is "shuffle off this mortal coil," a snippet from Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech. Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe has pointed out that "shuffle off" means "get rid of, dispose of," according to the Oxford English Dictionary. "Mortal coil" means "the bustle or turmoil of this mortal life." But this particular bit of Shakespeare is sometimes used as if it meant going somewhere on foot – shuffling "offstage," at the end of the performance, so to speak.

Bemusement is another hidden eggcorn. It's used wrong so often that when it's used correctly, it makes headlines. When President Obama's long-form birth certificate was released this spring, he noted he'd watched the "birther" story "with bemusement." Many people think it's a synonym for "amusement." The president made clear, though, that he's not one of them. He went on to declare himself "puzzled" with the staying power of the story. "This thing just keeps on going."

And so does our ability to reshape our language.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.