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A nice derangement of epitaphs

One of the great riches of language is its potential for error. Error in spoken language is common enough, but error in the slippery terrain between spoken language and written language has fabulous potential. Beyond the common mistakes in grammar and usage, one can find, particularly if one looks in on the fellows at Language Log, some gorgeous specialized categories.

The malapropism: This venerable category of errors derives from the delicious and eponymous Mrs. Malaprop from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals of 1775. Mrs. Malaprop (from the French mal a propos) pretentiously and unknowingly substitutes the wrong word for a similar-sounding correct one in her pronouncements, such as an allegory on the banks of the Nile. Or, more comprehensively: If I reprehend any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs! (apprehend, vernacular, arrangement, epithets).

The Spoonerism: The Rev. Archibald Spooner, warden of New College, Oxford, has given his name to a tongue-twisted error in which portions of words are transposed in phrases to give new and incongruous meanings. May I sew you to a sheet? for show you to a seat and the toast To our queer old dean for dear old queen are representative examples. Though the Rev. Mr. Spooner was said to be given to this sort of thing, it appears that many Spoonerisms attributed to him are entirely apocryphal.

The mondegreen: In an 1954 essay Sylvia Wright gave this word its impetus by desribing how as a child she had understood a line in the ballad “The Bonnie Earl O’Murray,” laid him on the green, as Lady Mondegreen. A mondegreen is a misunderstood rendering of the text of a songf or poem. The child’s hearing the hymn “Gladly the Cross I’d Bear” as “Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear” is a famous mondegreen. Rock music, given the roaring instrumentation and slack articulation of the singers, is fertile soil for mondegreens.

The eggcorn: The linguist Geoffrey Pullum has given us this term for an erroneous transformation of a stock expression into a new one that only appears to make sense. Free reign, hone in and baited breath* are typical examples. They appear to rise typically from misunderstandings of spoken English as it is translated into the written version.

The Cupertino: Technology has given us a new class of error identified at Language Log as the Cupertino: an error induced by careless use of electronic spell-checking — a form of cooperation transmuted into Cupertino. The Sun once presented a notable example in an article referring to Kunta Kinte, the protagonist of Alex Haley’s Roots, as Chunter Knit. It should be superfluous to point out that only a fool sets a spell-check program to run automatically.


* If you do not know what these three expressions are supposed to be, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to John E. McIntyre, A.M.E./Copy Desk, The Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 12178 for the answers.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:47 AM | | Comments (16)


A well-known mondegreen associated with Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" is the line "Excuse me while I kiss this guy."

The term "eggcorn," it might want explaining, is a, you know, eggcorn for the word "acorn." As much as I admire Pullman's (and, um, et al's) exploration of the world of eggcorns, I am sad that the term coined by my friend Megan did not become the name for this phenomenon: she called such usages "faux-netics."

Neil Diamond's "Forever in Blue Jeans" became, to my young ears, "Reverend Blue Jeans"

Richard Lederer's excellent "Anguished English" introduced me to goldwynisms, named after film producer Samuel Goldwyn. They include, "I'll give you a definite maybe" and "I've never liked you, and I always will."

Hendrix was aware of that one: I have somewhere (not to hand) a live recording of him performing that song in which he most definitely and knowingly sings 'Scuse me while I kiss this guy.

Okay, in the "I'll-bite-while-simultaneously-confessing-ignorance-and-ignoring-editorial-instructions" category:

I got "free rein"--I think--but those other two are too far ingrained in my cultural vocabulary for me to exhume their sources.

Little help, please?

To give free rein: To let go of the reins, surrender control. "Reign" is a monarch's rule.

To home in: To close in on, to focus on. "To hone" is to sharpen.

Bated breath: Allied to "abated." To hold one's breath in anticipation or apprehension is to have bated breath. "Baited" raises the interesting question of what one would use as bait on one's breath.

"Baited breath" is, of course, how one describes a cat who eats cheese and then sits at a mouse hole!

One of my favorite mondegreens:

Christ the royal master, leans against the phone.

for: Christ the royal master, leads against the foe.

"to home in" is related to the thing that homing pigeons do.

Ach. I am both grateful and embarrassed.

"Hone in" and "baited breath" are probably in the same category as "I should of known," which makes me wince.

But of course, I should've. ;-)


Those aren't the best eggcorns you could have used; they could so easily be simple spelling errors.

The term "eggcorn" itself is the most wonderful example: a lady used the term to describe the seed of the oak tree--an acorn.

To be a *true* eggcorn, there must be a mental explanation for the choice of terms--an imagery switch.

In the eponymous term, a seed is clearly the plant's version of an egg (hard shell on the outside; new life inside), and "corn" is of course the term for the seed part of any grain, and focused in the U.S. to refer to the plant maize and its hard little seeds.

I *love* eggcorns, precisely because the person who uses them IS intelligent, and IS thinking about what the words mean.

Sometimes I think that people who use the eggcorn have made a better choice--which is a better way to live, saying "woe is me" in a helpless tone, or saying "whoa is me" in amazement and wonder.

"Diffuse the situation" is my current favorite.

Regarding "Excuse me while I kiss this guy," there is a whole web site devoted to such mishearings. Check out what others thought pop lyrics said at I've had to make a few sheepish contributions over there myself.

One of my favorites:

.... "abscounding" with the money. Naturally, it's a scoundrel who abs(ents) himself.

My stepfather, a 6th grade social studies teacher, gives a quiz every year to see how many of his students know the words to the national anthem. By and large, many of the kids are oh-say-can-you-seeing "by the donzerly light."

Disbursing the crowd, dispersing the funds.

Why can't checking software highlight these things?

Day ja vous, all over again.

Richard Lederer's "The Cunning Linguist" is the most recent tome to entertain one and all in one of our throne rooms. Alas, it is has been reread and will return to the shelf. Perhaps the unread volume of limericks will be a suitable replacement. The only requirement for books in this locale are that they are easy to put down, but can entertain for as long as one might need sit. (Did I spell everything correctly?)

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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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