What are eggcorns and mondegreens?

Luke Sholl
Luke Sholl
E
Eggcorns and mondegreens are two linguistic phenomena that we’ve all fallen victim to. Keep reading to find out what both terms mean, and how they’ve influenced famous phrases, expressions, and song lyrics.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

EGGCORNS: A CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY

Eggcorns are words or phrases used—mistakenly—in place of the correct term. Before we dive into how and why this incredibly common practice came to be called eggcorns, here is a perfect example of what we mean. Consider the following words: “pre-Madonna”, “tenderhooks”, and, one of our personal favourites, “damp squid”. Notice anything unusual about them?

You’ve probably seen the phrases above written dozens of times across social media, but they are all incorrect! However, what makes eggcorns an intriguing case of mistaken identity is that they sound remarkably similar to their correct counterparts. Let’s take the phrases from earlier, but this time use the correct versions. They would read: “prima donna”, “tenterhooks”, and “damp squib”.

A crucial aspect of eggcorns is that the incorrect versions of the phrases usually make some sense. And, often, replaced words are in response to unfamiliar or archaic turns of phrase. Users find a more creative solution when they don’t understand a word, and over time this logical (or ignorant) amendment gains traction.

 

WHO COINED THE TERM EGGCORNS?

Until 2003, the phenomenon we now know as eggcorns had gone unnamed. However, when Mark Liberman published an article on Language Log referring to the case of a woman mistakenly using “eggcorns” instead of “acorns”, the iconic term was born. In response to the case of mistaken identity, linguistics professor Geoffrey Pullum suggested using the eggcorns mishap as the appropriate title.

 

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN EGGCORNS AND MONDEGREENS?

Mondegreens are another case of mistaken identity, but this time in regards to misheard phrases and idioms from songs, slogans, or poems. Popular (and highly comical) mondegreens include the following:

Starship — “We Built This City”
Wrong: “We built this city on sausage rolls”.
Correct: “We built this city on rock ‘n’ roll”.

 

ABBA — “Dancing Queen”
Wrong: “See that girl, watch her scream, kicking the dancing queen”.
Correct: “See that girl, watch that scene, dig in the dancing queen”.

 

The Monkees — “I’m a Believer”
Wrong: “Then I saw her face, now I’m gonna leave her”.
Correct: “Then I saw her face, now I’m a believer”.

 

Eggcorns are words or phrases used—mistakenly—in place of the correct term.

 

10 FREQUENTLY USED EGGCORNS

There are an untold number of modern eggcorns to choose from, but here are ten of the most frequent or noteworthy.

 

1. Utmost — upmost

The former term is used to stress importance or urgency, while the latter is another word for “uppermost”. That hasn’t stopped events from being misdescribed as “of the upmost importance”.

 

2. For all intents and purposes — for all intensive purposes

Arguably one of the most common eggcorns out there. Said quickly, both sound phonetically similar, but we can assure you that “for all intents and purposes” is correct.

 

3. Safe-deposit box — safety deposit box

This eggcorn is forgivable, as both versions sound and look remarkably similar.

 

4. Bald-faced lie — bold-faced lie

Not to imply that all people with bald faces are liars, but it seems that many users frequently mistake this famous phrase.

 

5. Alzheimer’s disease — old-timers’ disease

The risk of Alzheimer’s does increase as you get older, but it isn’t exclusive to old-timers.

 

6. Best thing since sliced bread — best thing since life’s bread

Although life’s bread does sound rather tasty, it’s not nearly as revolutionary as sliced bread.

 

7. Toeing the line — towing the line

The difficulty with this eggcorn is that when spoken out loud, both versions sound identical. It isn’t until you see it written down that the mistake becomes obvious.

 

8. Sixth sense — sick sense

Hard to imagine the movie starring Bruce Willis having the same ring to it with the title Sick Sense.

 

9. Foetal position — feeble position

You may look feeble and slightly defenceless laying on the floor, but that’s no reason to confuse this famous phrase. Foetal position, of course, refers to the tucked position of a baby inside the womb.

 

10. Tongue in cheek — tongue and cheek

The first is an idiom that refers to a sarcastic or humorous statement; the other is just two parts of the body.

 

Mondegreens are another case of mistaken identity.

 

HOW TO SPOT AND ELIMINATE EGGCORNS

Of all the potential eggcorns, our list is merely a brief sample. It just goes to show how easy it is to get phrases confused. After all, if you’ve only ever heard or said the wrong version, and no one was there to educate you on the matter, how are you supposed to know any better? Unfortunately, because the words contained in most eggcorns aren’t misspelt, the majority of spell-check programmes won’t pick them up.

The only real defence against eggcorns is knowledge. But, if you find yourself in doubt about a particular phrase, our top tip (aside from a quick Google search) is to write it down. Most eggcorns become obvious when written, rather than when spoken out loud.