Language Corner

‘Eggcorns,’ and other incorrect homophones

December 11, 2019
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Last column, we talked about a bumper crop of “acorns.” This time, it’s a bumper crop of “eggcorns.”

We have not discussed “eggcorns” for a few years, so a refresher is in order. As we wrote in 2013, an “eggcorn” is a misheard word for “acorn”—and, by extension, an incorrect homophone. We wrote about them again in 2014, in the context of the Eggcorn Database, which compiles them. 

One incorrect homophone that appears frequently on eggcorn lists is in this sentence, from a student newspaper: “We hope to peak interest among students about either the idea of studying abroad or helping them become more open and curious to other cultures.”

Another college newspaper did it as well, in an article on Disney Plus: “Star Wars and Marvel providing original series will certainly peak the interest of a lot of people.”

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The word meant in both cases was “pique.” It’s from a French word meaning “anger” or “annoy,” but it also means “to arouse” interest in something. We usually see “pique” as a noun, as in “she broke up with him in a fit of pique.” As with most “eggcorns,” there is a certain logic to the idea of “peaking” an interest, in the sense of driving it to the top. 

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The language maven Jan Freeman tweeted two incorrect homophones that she had noticed in The Boston Globe: “buyers would just assume have everything done,” instead of “just as soon,” and “chuck it up to passion,” instead of “chalk it up.”

An eggcorn is not just a typo: as the Eggcorn Database says, “The crucial element is that the new form makes sense,” even if it’s in a twisted sort of way. Almost by definition, an eggcorn has to be written; can you really tell the difference if someone says “for all intensive purposes” or “for all intents and purposes”? And most eggcorns probably begin as something misheard, and then typed as the hearer believes them to be rendered.

What happens, though, when the eggcorn overtakes the original form? One of our earliest columns, in 2008, discussed the phrase “you have another thing coming,” noting that its “proper” form is “you have another think coming.” The contemporary edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage did not have an entry, but the 2010 Garner’s third edition called the substitution of “thing” for “think” “grammatical but not even vaguely clever.” “Another thing coming,” that edition said, was at Stage 1 on the five-stage Language-Change Index, the traffic-penalty equivalent of a “$500 fine and jail time.”

The fourth edition, though, published in 2016 and retitled Garner’s Modern English Usage, shows how fast an eggcorn can grow roots. “Another thing coming” is now at stage 4 on the Language-Change Index, worth only a “warning ticket.” Garner’s says the ratio of “another think coming” to “another thing coming” is 1.6 to 1. This Google Ngram indicates something similar in books, with “thing” rising faster than “think.”

A similar think, er, thing is happening with another eggcorn, “hone in” instead of “home in.” 

Since 2007, this column has taken up that phrase, noting that the original meaning, “home in,” relates to “homing” pigeons. We are about ready to give up defending that “proper” form, noting a few years ago how ubiquitous “hone in” has become. It, too, is approaching full acceptability, rising in Garner’s from Stage 3 in 2009 to Stage 4 in 2016.

One eggcorn that makes Garner’s but doesn’t seem to frequent public spaces is “coldslaw” or “cold slaw.” Of course, it’s “coleslaw” or “cole slaw,” derived from Dutch words for “cabbage salad.” The citations in Garner’s are from 1983 and 1998, and a quick Nexis search finds “coldslaw” only in columns like this one that note the misuse, or in an occasional church bulletin. But it has, um, garnered enough attention to make it to Stage 1.

Stage 1 is where “peak one’s interest” has been since 2006. With luck, it won’t climb up the Language-Change Index. That would give us pique.

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