PUTTING THE CORN IN ACORN.

Last year Mark Liberman had a Language Log entry discussing the case of a woman who wrote “egg corns” for acorns. It turns out that this is fairly widespread, probably the product of a dialect in which egg is pronounced “aig.” Since then the eggcorn has become something of a mascot at Language Log; today Mark discusses it further, giving the example “hand few” used for handful and quoting Geoff Pullum to the effect that “eggcorns are tiny little poems, a symptom of human intelligence and creativity,” and ends with an Update mentioning a fact I should have recalled myself: the word acorn itself contains an earlier misunderstanding. As the OED says:

The formal history of this word has been much perverted by ‘popular etymology.’ OE. æcern neut., pl. æcernu, is cogn. w. ONor. akarn neut. (Dan. agern, Norw. aakorn), Dutch aker ‘acorn,’ OHG. ackeran masc. and neut. (mod.G. ecker, pl. eckern) ‘oak or beech mast,’ Goth. akran ‘fruit,’ prob. a deriv. of Goth. akr-s, ONor. akr, OE. æcer ‘field,’ orig. ‘open unenclosed country, the plain.’ Hence akran appears to have been originally ‘fruit of the unenclosed land, natural produce of the forest,’ mast of oak, beech, etc., as in HG., extended in Gothic to ‘fruit’ generally, and gradually confined in Low G., Scand., and Eng., to the most important forest produce, the mast of the oak. (See Grimm, under Ackeran and Ecker.) In Ælfric’s Genesis xliv. 11, it had perhaps still the wider sense, a reminiscence of which also remains in the ME. akernes of okes. Along with this restriction of application, there arose a tendency to find in the name some connexion with oak, OE. ác, north. ake, aik. Hence the 15th and 16th c. refashionings ake-corn, oke-corn, ake-horn, oke-horn, with many pseudo-etymological and imperfectly phonetic variants. Of these the 17th c. literary acron seems to simulate the Gr. a’kron top, point, peak. The normal mod. repr. of OE. æcern would be akern, akren, or ? atchern as already in [the 14th c.]; the actual acorn is due to the 16th c. fancy that the word corn formed part of the name.

No wonder acorn is such an awkward word, with its half-stressed second syllable, and no wonder people keep eggcorning it. I wish it had been allowed its natural development to akern, akren, or atchern—but then I wish the plural of book had been allowed to develop naturally into beech. I like the rough surfaces left by nature.

Comments

  1. joe tomei says:

    I’m really surprised that no one has cited Mississippi novelist Walker Percy’s _Message in a Bottle_, which has a long discussion about this. Percy stands in a line with Charles Peirce, an turn of the century American philospher whose insights into language have been taken up by a lot of American functionalists. Here is a page with a link to a Percy bibliography.

  2. which has a long discussion about this
    About what exactly? Presumably not the word “acorn.”

  3. ben wolfson says:

    Why would development into (say) akern be more “natural” than the actual development into acorn?

  4. May I add to the list some of my favorites, errors made by English language learners (now called ELLs) and native speakers alike: firsible for first of all and chester draws for chest of drawers.

  5. Ben: “Natural” in the sense of regular sound change, unaffected by folk etymology. The second syllable “should” have a reduced vowel (like, say, apron); the reason for the full vowel and secondary stress is the perceived relationship with corn.

  6. Benjamin Brooks says:

    Ah! beech. That little dot over the c! I was thinking beek.

  7. joe tomei says:

    Sorry, been out of touch lately.
    Not about acorns, but about the whole business of mistakes. The Percy book has an essay entitled ‘Metaphor as Mistake’, where he talks about how he thought a blue darter hawk was named a ‘blue dollar hawk’ and how disappointed he was when he found out that it wasn’t. I imagine someone thinking that acorns are like some cross between eggs and corn.
    Percy goes on to discuss how metaphors are often at their most powerful when they are ‘wrong’. In many ways, he predates Lakoff and Johnson’s work on metaphor and does it in a way that captures why I find language so interesting: its ability to reveal connections across vast expanses of time and space.
    hell, if Pullum gets to call it ‘symptoms of human intelligence and creativity’, I can get all fuzzy too.

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