I’ve developed a pretty high threshold of interest for the eggcorns they investigate so assidously over at the Log: once you realize how common it is for people to get phrases wrong (free reign for free rein being a classic example in writing, for all intensive purposes instead of for all intents and purposes in speech), you get jaded. But Jeanette Winterson has renewed my enthusiasm, in a wonderful essay for The Times, by taking note of the stories people invent to account for what they take to be the idiom. She starts off with a beautiful example:

The other day my elderly country neighbour asked for a bit of help to get his new washing machine into the kitchen. That generation never use “it”, always, “he” or “she”, so I wasn’t surprised to hear the washing machine called “he”, but I was surprised by what followed: “My old washing machine, he’s given up the goat,” he said, in a broad Gloucestershire accent.
“The goat?” I replied. “Are you sure?” “Oh, yes,” said my neighbour, “ain’t you never heard that expression before, given up the goat?” “Well, not exactly . . . where does it come from?” “Ah well,” said my neighbour, “in the old days, when folks didn’t have much, and mainly worked the land, a man would set store by his animals, especially his goat, and when he come to die, he would bequeath that goat to his heirs, and that is why we say, ‘he’s given up the goat’.”

People are lousy at accurate reproduction, but they’re great at storytelling, and I could happily read an entire book of anecdotes like that. (Winterton herself “laboured long into adult life really believing that there was such a thing as a ‘damp squid’, which of course there is, and when things go wrong they do feel very like a damp squid to me, sort of squidgy and suckery and slippery and misshapen. Is a faulty firework really a better description of disappointment?”)

Courtesy of Syntinen Laulu at Wordorigins.org.


  1. My reaction to that anecdote: it’s a machine, it’s a she!. Even the Germans get that right!

  2. My favourite is “wreckless driving”!
    As for using “he” and “she” rather than “it”, this is very common in my home county of Somerset, I have always thought it was a rural, and especially West Country thing.

  3. A friend was telling me only recently that she was asphyxiated on a certain someone.
    More valiant men may have been able to control their urges to laugh at such a sensitive moment in the conversation, but I couldn’t.

  4. I once worked with a poorly-educated salesman who had a whole fund of these:
    “off in Oblivia” (he thought it was a country)
    “I won’t be the escape-boat” (lifeboat + scapegoat)
    “if they bark at that” (balk + recalcitrant dog)
    I think there was one more, but I can’t remember it now. I was shocked to get zero hits for “off in Oblivia” just now. I thought I’d read somewhere that Mike Tyson used the same phrase.

  5. Not quite the same thing, but I was talking to one of my (high-school) students last week about exotic meats, and mentioned that I had elk many years ago, shot by a friend of my parents. She thought I said “elf”, and I had to explain that they’re (a) mythical, and (b) humanoid, so eating one would be cannibalistic if one could do it at all.
    Then again, two of my students (10th- and 12th-graders) were under the impression that buffalo (bison, if you like) are extinct, “you know, like wooly mammoths”, as the younger one put it.

  6. Nice examples Michael! I haven’t any of my own to offer, just thought I’d point out that a Google search for “into Oblivia” gets a few hits.

  7. herbam do

  8. A common source for eggcorn-like words is the current tendency to rely on computer spellcheckers uncritically. I suspect that to, too, and two will soon merge under that influence, as will their and there. Spellcheckers can cause amusing trouble when they are turned loose on names. I read a hockey story some years ago in which well known executives John Muckler and Dave Poile became John Mackerel and Dave Polio. In another case, lacking the name “Sikorsky” in its database, a spellchecker caused a This Day In History article to blandly assert that Igor Stravinsky invented the helicopter.

  9. What’s the phonetic equivalent of an eggcorn? I’m thinking of examples like pronouncing ‘dilettante’ or ‘rationale’ as if they’re French words.

  10. Also, I’m surprised nobody’s mentioned one of the most popular of all eggcorns, namely ‘toe the line’ / ‘tow the line’. The former is correct, to the best of my knowledge, though sufficiently convincing explanations of the latter have been advanced to propagate it widely, as a googlesearch will show.

  11. Thanks for that last one, clem. I just about choked to death on my morning bagel.

  12. Wonderfully, the American Heritage Dictionary informs us that the RIGHT form of ‘acorn’ is actually itself a sort of historical eggcorn, or in any case was influenced by “popular etymology”:
    A thoughtful glance at the word acorn might produce the surmise that it is made up of oak and corn, especially if we think of corn in its sense of “a kernel or seed of a plant,” as in peppercorn. The fact that others thought the word was so constituted partly accounts for the present form acorn. Here we see the workings of the process of linguistic change known as folk etymology, an alteration in form of a word or phrase so that it resembles a more familiar term mistakenly regarded as analogous. Acorn actually goes back to Old English æcern, “acorn,” which in turn goes back to the Indo-European root *ōg–, meaning “fruit, berry.”

  13. When I was younger, I used to say take it for granite. After all, granite is rather common, or so I justified it. I also said to make end’s meat. If you are just getting by with your salary, you will sooner bring home rump roast than prime rib.

  14. Cryptic Ned says

    I believe Mike Tyson actually announced that he was going to “fade off into Bolivian”.
    I remember a friend being confused about why a fine cut of meat was called “flaming yawn” (I understand that it’s cooked with flames, but what about the yawn?), but we were around 12 at the time, so that might not count.

  15. One I’ve heard:
    It’s a mute point (rather than “moot” point).

  16. When I was in college, I worked in a restaurant, broadening my horizons and exposing me to people unlike my upper middle class Jewish family. There was a black American chef who talked about filly minyawns. Later on, I heard about chester draws, which is really chest of drawers. And my mother in the car alwyas said to my father what I thought was a Yiddish expression, “paxkoveet”. it was, in fact, her fractured French, telling Mortie to slow down, with a “pas trop vite”, in her college French.

  17. An English language learner in an adult ESL class asked one of the assistant principals of the school how to spell the name of the things squirrels hoard. This administrator is not well liked and far from native-like in his English proficiency. None of the ESL teachers had any idea what he was talking about. We would have never confused an acorn from eggcorn (whatever that was). This administrator obviously had.

  18. Oh wow, I’ve never even thought about the phrase “wreckless driving” and how it doesn’t make any sense!

  19. Yes, ‘wreckless driving’ is the kind Allstate will currently drop your deductible for!
    When I was a child, I thought my mother was using a Yiddish expression (gotten from her friend Coreen) when she exclaimed ‘Yezhuhshmaddiya’.
    In fact it’s a Czech expression, gotten from her mother, and though pronounced exactly as described above, it’s spelled ‘Jesus Maria’. Not Yiddish, I’d dare to guess.

  20. My mother once asked a colleague for help collating some papers. “I’d love to help,” said the coleague, “I really enjoy copulating.” Far enough off to be a malapropism rather than an eggcorn, I suppose, but a good story all the same.

  21. A friend who is severely dyslexic recently confessed that until he was in his twenties he often wondered why his favorite sandwich was called “girl cheese.”

  22. I like the popular usage (UK, at least) of “fine toothcomb”
    (as opposed to “fine-tooth comb”).
    The idea of not only brushing, but also combing your teeth or having to make do with a toothcomb of inferior quality has always amused me.

  23. Owlmirror says

    On the other hand…
    I was reminded of a description of elderly rural English gentlemen which makes them out to be far more cunning than they appear, especially when dealing with outsiders from the cities.
    So while he may have been completely serious, there is also the possibility that he simply mis-spoke the word “ghost”, and rather than own up to the slip of the tongue, decided to cover for himself in front of the “furriner” with an amusing little anecdote, never dreaming that it would end up in the newspaper.
    In other words, perhaps he decided to pull her lake a bit.

  24. “And then we drank ourselves to Bolivia” is one of my favorites.

  25. David H. — the word “toothcomb” actually exists, and means the set of lower incisors that pottos, lorises and other prosimians use to groom themselves. So a meticulous strepsirrhine primate really would go over something with a “fine toothcomb”!

  26. I love the word potto. (I wonder if the 3rd ed. of the OED will do better than “Alleged to be from a Guinea dialect” when it gets to this word?)

  27. It turns out that I’ve been collecting these for years. My all time favourite being “He went as white as a sheep”, which though not technically correct is at least within the spirit of the law.

  28. My wife overheard someone in the corridor at work say “It was a real God’s-end.”

  29. Does “It’s not Brain Science/Rocket Surgery” count?
    And, if so, is “Rocket Salad” even funnier?

  30. Nice Jones says

    My father used to refer to a woman of his acquaintance as having “a mouth like a quoit”. My brother and I concluded that the quoit was an exotic fish with outsized mouthparts which constantly formed and re-formed an enormous “O”, perhaps a gargantuan goldfish. The quoit became our favourite fish. We were really disappointed to discover many years later that quoits were metal hoops.

  31. Wildfire says

    Maybe not quite in line with eggcorns…I once worked with a food service person who kept changing the entertainment announcement chalkboard from “They’re Back” to “Their Back” because her customers wouldn’t understand French.
    But then, she was also the one who, when taking a coffee order of “two sugars, no cream” said “I’m sorry, sir, we’re out of cream you’ll have to have it without milk”.
    My neighbours’ young son heard that and laughed so had he fell off his bike, nearly “rupturing his spectacles”.
    What can I tell you – it’s an “Auggie-Dog” world out there.

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