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Spoken English is full of pitfalls, but the transition from spoken to written English is particularly treacherous.

We have a venerable word, malapropism, for the substitution of an incorrect word for the proper one, which derives from Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775). Malaprop, from the French mal a propos, roughly, badly to the purpose, inappropriate. Audiences have found her errors — "like an allegory on the banks of the Nile" — delicious for nearly two and a half centuries.

A cognate word is mondegreen, coined, according to Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Sylvia Wright in 1954 to label misheard lyrics, titles, catchphrases, slogans and the like. It derives from a child’s misunderstanding of a ballad lyric, "They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray and laid him on the green," as "They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray and Lady Mondegreen."

Mondegreens are numerous and widespread, a typical example being a child’s hearing the Christian hymn as "Gladly the cross-eyed bear." The title of this posting, a mishearing of the proverbial "dog-eat-dog world." comes from an essay by a Syracuse University student in a freshman English paper thirty years ago.

The tradition was upheld by the Sun reporter who filed a story with a reference to a "toe-headed boy." (Tow, or pale yellow flax or straw, has admittedly become a relatively uncommon word.) Another writer at the paper reported confidently that a candidate was a "shoe-in." (The idiomatic term is shoo-in.) And still another heard Putty Hill Avenue as Puddy Hill Avenue and wrote it accordingly.

The speakers and writers of English are so relentlessly creative that linguist Geoffrey Pullum coined yet another word, eggcorn, to describe an erroneous usage, after a writer who transformed the word acorn. An eggcorn is a homophone that suggests meaning and originality. Chris Waigl maintains a Web site, The Eggcorn Database,

, that contains more than 500 examples.

John Kenneth Galbraith once remarked, "If all else fails, immortality can always be assured by spectacular error." So if you must sin against standard usage, you should, like Mrs. Malaprop, sin boldly.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:35 AM | | Comments (8)


My favorite eggcorn tale comes from a mythology course at the University of Texas. No, I can't swear to it, but here it is. The prof, who was from the East Coast and had a plummy accent, asked the students on the first day of class to reveal nice stuff about themselves on file cards; this was back in the 1970s. One of his questions was on how the students usually met up with exciting stories. The guy was thoroughly stumped by the answer "soul poppers," and he actually called the young woman aside to find enlightenment. Yes, daytime drama. A Texas accent helps here.

Around here we call this stuff "fauxnetics," for which our canonical example is "for all intensive purposes." Wallah!

In 1975, during a lecture on Greek history, our prominent prof suddenly stopped and looked out at the hall. "You look bored," he said. And he trotted out a surprising joke involving John Kenneth Galbraith. For one version, see

Btw, the prof in my second anecdote wasn't the same as the one in my first. The Greek history story took place in New Jersey. And the professor, who came from Boston or thereabouts, spoke of Sparter, not Sparta.

I should have mentioned as well the article that arrived on the copy desk stating that some program or offer was "bonified."

Genuine. Authentic. Made in good faith. Bona fide.

In college we ran a student essay that used the phrase "for all intensive purposes."

One of my journalims professors used to talk about a student reporter who wrote a column about her "pet pea."

Excellent article! You should see some of the doozies that get posted in the clearly unedited articles over at Ain't It Cool News. I notice malapropisms and mondegreens over on that site on a regular basis, and every time I have to cringe, amazed that a site passing itself off as journalism would have such a poor grasp of writing.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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