In its account of the death of “Dr. Death” (Jack Kevorkian), CBS News online reported that his attending physician said that “he had a cancerous legion that was inoperable.” I find it hard to believe that Dr. Kevorkian’s problem was, as the report states, several thousand Roman footsoldiers, whether or not they were malignant.
What the physician probably said was that he had a cancerous lesion, which is an “abnormal change in the structure of an organ.” Somewhere along the way, somebody misunderstood the word.
Such mishearings of spoken words are known as eggcorns—a word that is attributed to Geoffrey Pullum, who coined it in 2003 in a blog about a woman who substituted the phrase egg corn for acorn. Some commonly heard eggcorns are:
Go at it hammer and thongs (tongs).
That’s a mute (moot) point.
What’s the windshield (wind chill) factor?”
I need a drink to slack (slake) my thirst.
It’s impolite to easedrop (eavesdrop).
Americans living abroad are known as ex-patriots (expatriates).
My favorite eggcorn was a closed-caption TV report about “Firefighters who have to deal not just with the fire but also with people fleeing the fire and ejaculating on all the major highways.”
Eggcorns are related to malapropisms, a word derived from Sheridan’s character Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals. She liked to use big words, which tended to be the wrong ones—illegible, say, for ineligible. Another type of mis-hearing is known as a mondegreen, which is the misunderstanding of a poem or song lyric. Mondegreens were discussed extensively in my blog of December 25, 2009, which you can (and should without delay) read at:
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou tends to mis-hear almost everything that is said to him, especially requests to shut up, which he misunderstands to mean please continue.
I fried an eggcorn for my lunch,
And it was fairly tasty--but
The moment I began to munch,
I felt a pain down in my gut.
The reason was (I have a hunch)
The eggcorn really was a nut.