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:

1. Swings in roundabouts

The correct phrase is, of course, “swings and roundabouts”, as in, “it’s swings and roundabouts”, meaning “it has both advantages and disadvantages”. A Google search for this phrase, as of the time of writing, turns up about 346,000 results.

Instead, I imagined the phrase was “it swings in roundabouts”, with “swings” being a verb, and “in roundabouts” being some sort of adverbial phrase describing how it swings. It’s a bit odd because this phrase doesn’t exist anywhere else, although I think I imagined it was a form of “in a roundabout way”. (Another feature of eggcorns is that the user probably never explicitly analyses why their version makes sense, they just assume that their unconscious interpretation is right.)

In my eggcorn version, the meaning was also slightly different: I thought it meant that something’s fortunes changed over time. Technically this may disqualify it as an eggcorn, which should just be a difference in spelling and etymology, not meaning.

This fashion blog post, Fashion Swings in Roundabouts, is a good example of the same mistake being made by someone else. In fact, the Google search for “swings in roundabouts” produces about 148,000 results, showing that the error is very widespread. When I researched this previously in 2007, the Google hits for “and” and “in” were 148,000 and 197 respectively, suggesting that the error is spreading rapidly and may soon overtake the original.

Here’s my original post on “swings in roundabouts” on the Eggcorn Forum, and another more recent post identifying the same eggcorn.

2. Kyrgyzstan/Kurdistan

Many years ago, someone told me that the country spelt “Kyrgyzstan” was pronounced “Kurdistan”. I forgot about this until later when I was reading about eggcorns and realised it may count as one.

The reasoning behind it seems pretty obvious. Kyrgyzstan isn’t a common topic on broadcast news in the UK. It is likely that there are many people who have seen “Kyrgyzstan” in print, for example browsing an atlas, and who frequently listen to TV and radio news programmes, yet have never heard it spoken. On the other hand, the region of Kurdistan is a relatively much more frequent topic in the news, given its politically contentious status within the countries of Turkey, Iraq and Iran, but doesn’t appear written on maps, lists of countries, and so forth.

It’s possible, therefore, that someone with a reasonable awareness of the world could have seen but never heard “Kyrgyzstan”, and heard but never seen “Kurdistan”. It’s a logical step to suppose that the spoken “Kurdistan” is the pronunciation of the written “Kyrgyzstan”. Given the mindboggling spelling of “Kyrgyzstan”, and a familiarity with other unexpected pronunciations, it’s even more understandable.

Here’s an example of the confusion on Usenet.

3. Bite the bullet

I studied philosophy at university. A popular phrase in undergraduate philosophy discussions is “to bite the bullet”. By the end of my first year I was pretty adept at using it correctly: I had learned the correct contexts in which to use it successfully.

To clarify, the correct context would be something like the following. Someone has proposed a philosophical theory. Someone else raises a point which sits unhappily with that theory – not disproves it exactly, but entails some awkward results. For example, a utilitarian claims that the right thing to do is whatever results in the greatest happiness for the greatest number. The standard objection to utilitarianism asks what one should do if put in the position of having to choose between killing one person, and ten people being killed. The utilitarian seems forced to say that the right thing to do is to kill the one person, though this jars unpleasantly with most people’s gut moral feeling that killing is wrong. Faced with the awkward objection, the philosopher has a choice: to argue against the point, showing it to be wrong or irrelevant; to modify his position in order to make it so; or to bite the bullet, to accept the unpleasant consequences and move on. For the utilitarian, biting the bullet would mean saying, yes, the right thing to do is to kill the one person.

However, even though I knew exactly what the phrase meant, it turned out later on, during a discussion of philosophers’ cliches with another student, that I’d imagined the metaphor behind the phrase completely wrong. The correct metaphor, of course, is of a soldier in battle about to undergo an emergency amputation without anaesthetic. The only thing he is given to focus his attention away from the excruciating pain is a bullet to bite down on. Hence the phrase implies accepting a horrible situation with little mitigation.

I obviously hadn’t watched enough war films, since I had a completely different interpretation of the phrase. I had always thought of the old illusionists’ trick of appearing to catch a bullet between the teeth. It made perfect sense to me: the bullet was the objection raised to your body of argument, which your opponent has just fired at you. He wants it to hit you square on, mortally wounding the theory. If you were to counter-object to the objection, you’d be trying to dodge the bullet. But your other option is to bite the bullet: catch it in your mouth, symbolically accepting the consequences within the framework of your theory.

This may be another case that’s not technically an eggcorn, since I understood each element of the phrase correctly: I hadn’t misheard one word for another. Writing it down reveals no error. Yet there was a world of difference in the inner understanding of the phrase between two people who were apparently using it identically. How can you know that your language, which you imagine you share with everyone around you, isn’t dramatically wrong in the same way?

Here’s my original Eggcorn Forum post on Kyrgyzstan/Kurdistan and bite the bullet.

5 thoughts on “Three Eggcorns

  1. My old boss who was intelligent and articulate but not well educated was a constant source of interesting eggcorns, which I either giggled at to myself or attempted to correct. “Things of that elk” was a good one, and I remember once correcting “didn’t install much confidence” but he refused that one, stoutly defending the use of “install” as being perfectly logical. I also am pretty sure I heard someone recently say as a form of goodbye “See you. And on!” in the same meter that you’d normally say “See you anon.”

    • Those three are all undoubtedly eggcorns, especially defending “install confidence” by the logical analogy with installing software on a computer (ie, putting one thing into another) and overlooking the older meaning of install which doesn’t work as an analogy at all (ie, putting a person into an official position).

  2. I’ve got a feeling that “I could care less” which is constantly used by one of the speech-writer/ lawyer guys in The West Wing is probably originally an eggcorn. That was one of the reasons I had to stop watching it.

    • Not an eggcorn, but similarly annoying phrase for me is “second to none”; meaning “this is the best thing because there’s nothing to which it’s second place”. However it could also mean that none takes first place, so whilst something’s better than nothing, nothing’s better than this thing; almost the opposite of the intended meaning.

    • It’s an error which has spread so successfully that it’s now more common than the original in US English, but for technical reasons, I don’t think it counts as an eggcorn: it doesn’t feature an imagined alternative derivation, just a failure to parse negatives and comparatives.

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