Squirreling away the eggcorns

A collection of misleading phrases

We’ve discussed “eggcorns,” phrases so tantalizingly close to idioms or common expressions that they actually make some sense, twisted though it may be — like “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes.”

Now, just in time for beach reading, an article by Mark Peters in the June-July issue of Copyediting magazine (article only available to subscribers) makes mention of the Eggcorn Database. It’s a fun place to spend some time.

Eggcorns are not just misspellings, or things that make no sense, like malapropisms or crash blossoms. They do make sense. Peters writes that they are “mistakes that, paradoxically, show people’s intelligence,” because the “spelling errors are a result of applying logic to our illogical spelling system.”

Thus we have eggcorns like “he is at her beckon call,” instead of “beck and call.” The image is of a woman signaling to a man to move closer, “beckoning” him.” Beck” is the noun from which “beckon” arose, and means a gesture; “at her beck and call: means ‘ready to obey one’s command immediately,’” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary notes. Not quite the same as “come here,” but pretty darn close. “Beck and call” is more right than “beckon call,” which Garner’s Modern American Usage puts at Stage 1 of the five-stage Language-Change Index, barely registering in English.

We also have a “bold-faced lie” instead of the original idiom, a “bald-faced lie.” When you are being particularly “bold” about a lie, or it is printed in “bold” or headline type, the eggcorn makes sense. “Bald-faced” traces to the meaning of “bald” as worthless or paltry; it has its own predecessor in the “bare-faced lie.” The Worldwide Words site says “boldfaced lie” goes back to Shakespeare, so go ahead and use it.

As words fall out of favor, they are more subject to being replaced by eggcorns. That may be the case with “daring-do,” an eggcorn for “derring-do,” meaning courage or bravado. “Derring” is derived from old words for “daring,” so it may have been an eggcorn itself originally: The Oxford English Dictionary notes that ” those words meant “literally daring to do, which, by a chain of misunderstandings and errors, have come to be treated as a kind of substantive combination, taken to mean, Daring action or feats, ‘desperate courage.’” Still, Garner’s isn’t brave enough to put “daring-do” any higher than Stage 1.

Eventually, many “eggcorns” may become standard English. The database is run by Chris Waigl, a scientific researcher and software engineer who dabbles in linguistics, with help from such seriously linguistic people as Ben Zimmer and others at the Language Log. The Eggcorn Database has its own measurement of when something is approaching standard English.

One that is close is “hone in on,” which we have been railing against for years as an eggcorn of “home in on. Garner’s puts “hone in” at Stage 3, commonplace but still unacceptable. The Eggcorn Database calls “hone in on” “nearly mainstream,” and it has made its way into some dictionaries.

What has not made it into some dictionaries is the word “eggcorn” itself. As we wrote last year, “eggcorn” was not in the Merriam-Webster family of dictionaries, even though the Collegiate Edition recently added “selfie,” “fracking,” “turducken,” and “freegan.” Maybe “eggcorn” just hasn’t passed M-W’s do process.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.