Eggcorns … Is that Microwavable?
I love words and the zany ways they can be interpreted, misinterpreted, misheard, misspoken, and slipped into a conversation without us even realizing it—as in eggcorns and mondegreens in the novel writing process.
Let’s nip something in the butt right now … or rather, nip it in the bud. Eggcorns, you see, aren’t a newfangled breakfast cereal. Eggcorns are an inadvertent misstatement of a word or phrase. These misspellings or mispronunciations are honest, plausible errors. We’re simply trying to articulate a familiar phrase, but miss the mark.
By the way, you can add milktoast to your eggcorn repertoire (that sounds like breakfast again, doesn’t it). Actually, milktoast is a misspelling of milquetoast (meaning skittish or timid).
Following are more examples of eggcorns. Have you ever read of a “daring-do” adventure? The author meant derring-do. Same for “old-timer’s disease,” which is actually Alzheimer’s disease. Or you may think you have a posable thumb—when you actually have an opposable thumb.
Who in the world came up with the word eggcorn, and what is the etymology? Well, linguists will point you to Language Log, the digital hang out for word nerds. In a now-famous (at least in the world of linguists) 2003 blog post, Chris Potts relayed that a woman had stated “egg corn” in lieu of acorn. To describe the phenomenon of misstating such words, Geoff Pullum suggested these slips be referred to as “egg corns,” which we now call eggcorns.
Using Eggcorns in the Novel Writing Process
So, if you want a character to sound authentically southern, or typically northern, or simply prone to slips of the tongue, why not incorporate a few eggcorns into the dialogue? Are we in agreeance?—ha ha!
Examples from some of my own writing:
“Yes, I’m going on a world-wind tour,” bragged the skinny drummer, trying to impress the petite brunette.
“You mean whirlwind tour, right?” replied the brunette with a tinge of snark, having no intention of canoodling on the tour bus.
“Why the khakis?” shouted Fred from the tractor. “We’re in a cornfield. Wear your overhauls, ya dummy!”
Fred means overalls, thought Kenneth, kicking himself for being such a siss-pants.
“That there’s a wild variety of flowers,” observed Thelma with a twinge of jealousy.
She means wide variety, thought the school teacher, forcing herself not to correct her new neighbor’s English.
While eggcorns don’t change the meaning of a word or phrase … mondegreens do. If you’ve ever sung song lyrics incorrectly, well, that’s a mondegreen. For instance, I loved the Monkees when I was a little girl. My sister and I sang “I’m A Believer” at the top of our lungs, but got it wrong despite the song title. Our rendition was, “Then I saw her face. Now I’m gonna leave her.” This brings a significantly different meaning to the lyrics, which are actually: “Then I saw her face. Now I’m a believer.”
Has anyone else ever wondered about the Hallow Wood Bee? Yes, again as a child I misheard and misinterpreted the Lord’s Prayer in which we state, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Well … we pronounced hallowed as hallow wood, followed by be, which we thought was bee. Hallow Wood Bee. Classic mondegreen.
Oh—and the Christmas song “Silent Night” includes the lyrics “”Round yon virgin,” but how many children have sung “Round John Virgin” instead?
So, how did mondegreens get the monikor? Well, it began with the poem “Percy’s Reliques” by Thomas Percy below:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
Writer Sylvia Wright misheard the last verse and assumed it was “and laid him on the green” instead of “And Lady Mondegreen.” She charmingly shared this in a 1954 interview, and the word “mondegreen” eventually became a thing. It took until 2000, however, for Webster’s College Dictionary to include the word. But I’m glad they finally did, because it’s a fun concept with clever implications in the novel writing process.
Using Mondegreens in the Novel Writing Process
What if Lorraine’s boyfriend is extremely good looking, but short on smarts? Or … what if he’s long on smarts and actually alters the lyrics of a song to break up with her?
Consider having him serenade Lorraine with the Johnny Nash song, “I Can See Clearly Now.” However, instead of singing “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,” he quips, “I can see clearly now, Lorraine is gone.”
Voila! That’s the beauty of a mondegreen. Authors can tuck them into dialogue to ramp up the interaction, develop the character, or just have a little fun with dialogue.
Need more inspiration? Check out the Am I Right website of misheard lyrics, song parodies, music humor, and satire. And stay tuned as I blog on more interesting topics such as homophony, Hobson-Johnson, expressive loan, folk etymology, oronyms, malapropisms, mumpsimus, and more!