Three Eggcorns

An eggcorn is a linguistic phenomenon in which a person, hearing a word or phrase, understands its meaning, but incorrectly analyses its components. Usually this is done by mistaking a word or a part of a word for something which sounds very similar. Often the person then imagines a plausible derivation from the incorrect components.

A typical example is “ex-patriot”, a common eggcorn for “expatriate”. Imagine you learned the word “expatriate” only by hearing it used, but never seeing it in writing. You would gain an understanding of its meaning and the appropriate way to use it. You’d also be able to pronounce it correctly, since “expatriate” and “ex-patriot” are homophones (different words pronounced identically). But all along you imagine that the word you’ve learned is “ex-patriot”, ie someone who no longer counts as a lover of their native country, since they moved away from it. No-one’s told you that this is the root meaning; you’ve just come to that conclusion because it makes sense to you. For years, you happily use the word in conversation, and no-one suspects any error, because as far as they can tell, you understand it perfectly well. Then, one day, you have to write it down, and the mistake is revealed.

I particularly like “ex-patriot”, because the mistaken etymology makes such immediate, intuitive sense. It’s also a good example of the typical cause of eggcorns: they usually occur when the original derivation has become obscure or archaic enough to be unfamiliar to the speaker, who has only encountered it in the one particular phrase which becomes their eggcorn. How often do you hear “expatriate” used these days as a verb for withdrawing or being banished from your native country?

The term “eggcorn” was coined by linguists Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum on the Language Log blog in 2003, after Liberman had reported the case of a woman who had written it in place of “acorn”. Since then a database has been set up to collect other examples, and currently has 641 (though I think work to add new ones stopped some time ago). It’s a highly entertaining read, and I’d recommend anyone who enjoys words, and has a rainy afternoon to idle away, to have a browse.

The slightly unnerving thing about eggcorns is that it’s quite possible you suffer from one or more yourself, and you might never know. Now you know about the phenomenon though, you’ll be able to spot the exposure of an eggcorn when it happens. Here are three possible contenders I’ve noticed, two of which were mine:

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How to predict a policy failure

As soon as the Coalition Government started cutting the flood defence budget in 2010, it was as predictable as the water cycle what would happen next: within no more than a few years and probably within the lifetime of the government which made the cuts, there would be heavy rainfall, resulting in massive floods, and a backtrack on the cuts – emergency spending if not a change to the planned budget – either way, a tacit admission of failure.

This sort of thing seems crashingly inevitable to me. There’s an obvious trajectory, of reduced budgets, reduced regulation or reduced oversight, followed by conspicuous calamity, followed by attempts to mop up the mess which generally involve reimplementing whatever system had originally been in place to prevent the calamity.

I’m not here to congratulate myself on uselessly predicting the flooding crisis (also, because I never went on record predicting it, so there’s no proof I ever did). I want to teach you how to predict similar balls-ups in the future, because the depressing thing is, it’s not that difficult.

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India: the missing photos

In Shimla, a dodgy internet cafe virus wiped my SD card, and I lost all the photos from Nainital, Haridwar, Mussoorie and Dehradun that were on it. The ones I was most upset about losing were the ones from my day in Dehradun and the two couchsurfers I’d met.

When I got back to the UK, I used Recuva to recover the data from the SD card. Some of the photos were immediately recoverable in perfect condition, while others were corrupted to differing degrees: some were completely destroyed, while others had bits and pieces still salvageable.

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BBC Three: a suggestion

According to reports, it looks like BBC Director General Tony Hall plans to axe BBC Three as a way of saving the bulk of his £100m budget deficit.

As with the proposed, then U-turned, plan to close BBC Radio 6 Music in 2010, there are strong arguments for retaining BBC Three. It’s the BBC’s only youth-oriented TV channel, with a target audience of 16-34 year olds. It’s been a testing ground for new ideas and programmes, many of which have gone on to great success. Whether the likes of Little Britain and Gavin & Stacey are to your personal taste or not, BBC Three undeniably provides innovative and unique programming, and caters to a niche which is otherwise ignored by commercial and other BBC channels, thus contributing to the BBC’s public service remit.

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When is a science GCSE not a science GCSE?

When it’s from a faith school, and the exam boards have redacted all questions about evolution from the exams, in order to respect religious sensitivities.

Unfortunately, it’s not a joke.

Here’s the article from the Sunday Times (paywall) which broke the story about exam board OCR removing questions about evolution from the science GCSE papers at Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School, a Jewish faith school in Hackney. And here’s a freely available summary of the story from the BBC.

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