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Monday Green Eggcorns & Hamm's: Happy Accidents in Writing

Eggcorns are usage errors, plain and simple. They happen when we substitute the unfamiliar with the familiar, and we mainstream eggcorns into the language by repeating the same usage mistake, over and over. The term comes from an errant adaptation of the word “acorns,” and the meaning of "eggcorns" might be recognizable in such terms as “butt naked,” which originally was “buck naked,” a term now widely acknowledged to be racist (which is likely why "butt naked" has become the accepted term).

While an eggcorn is misused, a mondegreen is misheard: a phrase in a song or poem that’s mistaken often enough to become mainstreamed. The term was coined by American author Sylvia Wright in 1954, based on a line from a Scottish ballad she misheard as a child (Lady Mondegreen instead of "laid him on the green”). The child’s ear, in fact, is a frequent source of mondegreens, trying to interpret unfamiliar vocabulary in a familiar way: “super trouper” becomes “super-dooper”; “dog-eat-dog world” becomes “doggy-dog world”; "all of the other reindeer" becomes "Olive, the other reindeer"; and, of course, "l-m-n-o-p" becomes "elemental pee." 

For adults, it happens when they fail to recognize that the verse being sung or spoken is actually in a foreign language: our ears expect English, so our brains phonetically transcribe the words into the nearest English equivalents. What constitutes “foreign” to our ears, however, can be just as much a result of poor diction, dialect, accent, and, as with youngsters, an unfamiliarity with the vocabulary used.

In American culture, probably one of the most famous mondegreens of all time is “Kumbaya.” You might have heard claims that the origins of "kumbaya" is Sanskrit, or that it's a Native American word for "peace," but in reality it's an early 20th century spiritual folk song originated by South Carolina islanders who sang the song in a Pidgin English dialect. The actual lyric of "Kumbaya" is, “Come by here (h’ya)”; however, this mondegreen has now found its way into common usage as a pejorative term for any sort of "hippy-dippy" spiritual solidarity (as in, holding hands ‘round a campfire and singing).

Eggcorns frequently find their way into mondegreens. Below is a cursory list of some you might already be familiar with.

popular eggcorns

mondegreens:

  • beckon-call (instead of "beck and call)

  • coldslaw (instead of “coleslaw”)

  • 
coming down the pipe (actually, “coming down the pike”)

  • cut mustard (actually, “cut/pass muster”)

  • duck tape (instead of “duct tape”)

  • expresso (instead of “espresso”)

  • jerry-rigged (instead of “jury-rigged”)

  • keep off the medium strip (instead of “median strip”)

  • pick and a poke/pig and a pope (instead of “pig in a poke”; a “poke” is a fabric sack, the diminutive version of which is called a “pokette” or “pocket”)

  • sherbert (instead of “sherbet”)

  • sick sense, and now also "Sith sense" (instead of “sixth sense”)

  • a stigmatism (instead of “astigmatism”)

  • upmost (actually, “utmost”)

  • wet your appetite (instead of “whet your appetite”)

"Come on Barbie, let's go potty,” sung by Aqua in “Barbie Girl” (actually, “Let’s go party!”)

"Should I just keep chasing penguins?” sung by Adele in “Chasing Pavements” (the actual lyric)

“‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy” sung by Jimi Hendrix in “Purple Haze” (actually, “kiss the sky”)

“Hold me closer, Tony Danza'' sung by Elton John in “Tiny Dancer” (the actual lyric)

“... and I won’t chew: succotash obsession” sung by Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox in “Love Is a Stranger” (actually, “…and I want you such it’s an obsession”)

“... illuminate the nose on your face 'n' then sighin'” sung by Deathcab For Cutie in “I’ll Follow You Into the Dark” (actually, “illuminate the ‘No’s on their ‘Vacancy’ signs”)

“In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Iron Butterfly (actually, “In the Garden of Eden”)

“Pterodactyl penis best thing I never had” sung by Beyonce Knowles (actually, “You turned out to be the best thing I never had.”)

“The algebra is a devil to divide for me” sung by Queen’s Freddie Mercury in the mondegreen-maker “Bohemian Rhapsody" (actually, “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me”)

“...ripped up like a douche into the rotor of the night” sung by Manfred Mann's Earth Band, in “Blinded By the Light” (actually, “revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night.”)


To the expository writer who values precision and accuracy, mondegreens and eggcorns are mistakes to be avoided. To the creative writer, and especially the poet, these misheard and misused words and phrases are proof that our subconscious minds are creatively associative, and that we have a playful attitude about language. In fact, as a poet, you’re strongly encouraged to hear familiar language in unfamiliar ways. When we learn to trust our intuition and to hear words associatively, and therefore connotatively, we become far less literal-minded. And, for poets, that’s a very, very good thing.

Relevant Resources:
 

One of the best mistakes I ever made in one of my own poems was to substitute the word "ankle" for "anchor"—as in, "The car ankled in the driveway." "Ankle" seems inaccurate for many good reasons, but it felt right on the money for the most important reasons—reasons that trump any need for absolute accuracy in language use. You'll discover your own moments like this as you write because, in searching for the right things to say, your brain won't take a direct path. Rather, it will stumble into territory marked by seductive mondegreens and eggcorns, as well as other questionable usage that will make for happy accidents in your writing. Let those happen! 

Last Updated: 01/28/2016

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