Of mondegreens, eggcorns, and malapropisms

Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post and I agree on quite a bit: We are almost aligned on matters grammatical, theological, and genderological, to make up a word. He even once awarded me the ultimate prize when he was czar of the Style Invitational. It’s nice to share a fair amount with a two-time winner of the Pullet Surprise.

I like making up words. I’ve always figured that’s my right as someone who knows what’s a word and what isn’t. Making up a word can be a way to be funny or to make a point or sometimes both. (Heck, the Style Invitational encourages it—but I digress.)

Recently, when I got into the subject of misunderstood song lyrics, or mondegreens, the idea was that it’s often hard to grasp the right phrases for a variety of reasons, so our brains fill in a best guess from context and culture and other influences, often to comic effect.

Now Gene has opined here and here on sort of an off-key combination of the two: An awful lot of people are unintentionally making up words because they’ve never seen or registered the right ones in written form, they’re trying to sound educated (and having the opposite effect), or they just don’t know any better.

Gene was pretty restrained under the circumstances. Here are some of the circumstances he and his many correspondents have noted:

  • eck cetera (et cetera)
  • conversate (converse—or talk)
  • preventative (preventive—although the former has, alas, become “largely accepted”)
  • firstable (first of all)
  • “right from the gecko” (the get-go)
  • easedropping (eavesdropping)
  • all for knot, all for not (for naught)
  • excape (escape)
  • supposably (supposedly)
  • “for all intensive purposes” (intents and—although who knows?)

Some of these seem to be actual mondegreens (or “eggcorns”—the term used in a 2003 Language Log post—which Grammarist says “has been advanced as a broader term for misheard words or phrases that retain their original meanings”); others are just pompous mistakes that caught on. I sure hope the former don’t morph into the latter. But Gene checked: Believe it or not, according to Google, as of a few weeks ago “easedropping” had more than 20,000 hits.

Eggcorns seem designed to make us laugh. I’ve mentioned before a colleague at a long-ago job who often proclaimed the need to nip some problem in the butt; my boss and I had to stifle a grin every time. Among other examples cited by Grammarist: “It’s a doggy-dog world,” “bad wrap,” “hare’s breath,” and “on tenderhooks.” (How tender can they be?)

Others I’ve heard include “old-timer’s disease” (which makes sense!), “another words” (which doesn’t), “medium strip” (that thing down the middle of the road), and “hold your piece” (which could have its uses).

Are these proliferating? Is the problem getting worse? I followed Gene’s lead and Googled “for all intensive purposes.” Results: More than 135,000,000. Of course, a lot of those are folks like us talking about eggcorns and malapropisms and that time Denise Richards said it on the “Idiots Are People Two!” episode of 30 Rock. But still.

As I said, I sometimes make up words for fun. (And phrases, like “rocket surgery.” But that sort of thing can go wrong.) So does Gene. “There are times when the creative use of technically incorrect language achieves a sort of poetry and is not only to be defended but to be celebrated,” he said online. Then he mentioned that “conversate” reminded him of a favorite lyric, from Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline”:

As I was motivatin’ over the hill
I saw Maybelline in a Coupe DeVille …

Now, was he motivatin’? Possibly. I always thought he was motorvatin’. After all, he was driving a car, yes? We have no idea how motivated he was yet, though right away he became very.

Gene and I should discuss this. Maybe we’ll actually agree.

(c) 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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