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By Jim Rhodes
The subject of today’s rant is eggcorns, and I am grateful to the writer of the Johnson column in The Economist for enlightening me on the subject.
In this week’s edition of the magazine, the columnist took note of several sharp-eyed readers who had written to the editor complaining of a grammatical error that had crept into a previous article, in which the writer had used the phrase honed in.
They were right of course. The correct usage should have been homed in.
This, he wrote, is a near-perfect example of a linguistic phenomenon called an eggcorn.
I have for many years fancied myself a student of the English language, and it shames me to admit I have dwelt until now in a state of blissful ignorance on the subject of eggcorns.
So naturally I did some research.
The term eggcorn as a figure of speech, I learned, was invented by a conclave of professional linguists in 2003. They came across a reference to a woman who pronounced the word acorn as eggcorn. They realized that this was not just a slip of the tongue, but something much more. Acorns, of course, are shaped rather like small eggs or kernels of corn and have a similar function in containing the germs of new life. There being no other term to define this phenomenon, they adopted the word eggcorn and formalized its definition.
Like a pun, an eggcorn is a form of word substitution which occurs when two words sound alike but have different meanings and usually different spellings (known as homophones). But there’s an important difference.
A pun is an intentional form of witty word-substitution.
For example, if I were to paraphrase the famous dictum: “Mighty yolks from little eggcorns grow,” that would be a pun, but not an eggcorn.
An eggcorn is an unintentional misusage, but one that in its purest form possesses an aura of plausibility with a beautiful logic of its own that might conceivably represent an improvement on the original.
Consider, for example, the implicit meanings of honed and homed. The correct original phrase derives from an instinctive sense of direction, as in being able to find your way home (think of a homing pigeon). On the other hand, honed refers to an act of sharpening a blade to make it a more effective tool for cutting or stabbing. An observer might say that the concept of sharpening one’s focus on a subject might convey a message that’s stronger than the original – an active verb vs. a passive one.
Sometimes an eggcorn may carry subtle sub-meanings. Take, for instance, agreeance (as in “I’m in total agreeance with you”), which is an amalgam of agreement and acceptance. One could easily make the case that the eggcorn conveys a more powerful statement than either word alone.
You may be interested to know that there is a collaborative website called “The Eggcorn Database v.0.5” (https://eggcorns.lascribe.net/), in which amateur eggcornologists report and debate on examples of eggcorn sightings in the wild. The database currently contains 648 confirmed examples of the species, through which you can browse to your heart’s content (or, if you prefer, your heart’s contempt).