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.


  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. 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.

  8. Jeff Adams says

    Where I am from, rural NE Texas, everybody who’s native and older than about 30 pronounces this word as if the spelling was “aikern.” “A-korn,” which is the usual pronunciation of Yankee transplants, is definitely making inroads with the younger folk. To me, “a-korn” sounds a bit like an ESL pronunciation, but I suppose it’s the wave of the future.

  9. Very interesting! Thanks for weighing in (and reviving this old thread). I’m glad the “aikern” pronunciation survives, at least in rural NE Texas.

  10. David Marjanović says

    OHG. ackeran masc. and neut. (mod.G. ecker, pl. eckern) ‘oak or beech mast,’

    “Modern” probably refers to Grimm’s dictionary. I haven’t encountered the word except as a cran morpheme in Buchecker f., pl. -n, “beech mast”. “Acorn” is Eichel f., which looks like some kind of diminutive of Eiche “oak”.

  11. Same here – outside of dictionaries, I’ve only ever seen Buchecker .

  12. The formal history of this word has been much perverted by ‘popular etymology.’

    Perverted! How very 1884. The Third Edition non-judgmentally says “altered” and “association”, as in the 2011 revision of acorn:

    In English the word was subject to widespread alteration as a result of folk etymology by association with oak n. (compare e.g. ocorn, oakehorn at α. forms), corn n.1 (compare e.g. accorn, akecorne at α. forms), and horn n. (compare e.g. okehorn at α. forms, hatch-horn at γ. forms). The modern standard pronunciation with /ɔː/, /ɔ(ə)/ in the second syllable seems to be chiefly due to the association with corn n.1, while the vowel of the first syllable shows the regular reflex of early Middle English short a ( < Old English æ ) after open syllable lengthening in disyllabic forms of the word.

    They’ve also caught up to present-day German:

    Cognate with … German (now regional) Eckern , (standard, inferred singular, 15th cent.) Ecker , now chiefly in the compound Buchecker , lit. ‘beech mast’ …
    In modern German the usual word for the fruit of the oak tree is Eichel … a derivative < Eiche oak n.

    A search for “perverted” and “perversion” in etymologies (the search function is worth the price of subscription by itself!) finds them currently in about a hundred unrevised entries, such as gossamer. There used to be a lot more that have now been revised away, yet the OED’s definitions of the words “perverted” and “perversion” themselves don’t mention this lexicographic usage. It smells of Latinism, as the etymology of “perversion” notes: “< classical Latin perversiōn-, perversiō reversal of order (of words in a sentence), inversion, in post-classical Latin also falsification of a text (early 3rd cent.) …”

    And it wasn’t only the OED that used to call words “perverted”: there was a big book on Folk-Etymology: a Dictionary of Verbal Corruptions or Words Perverted in Form or Meaning by False Derivation or Mistaken Analogy (1882). The Century Dictionary (1895) uses it too, for example:

    thee³, poss. pron. [A dial. var. of thy, or, as among the Friends, a perverted use of the obj. thee.]

    A Shakespeare Glossary (1911, by OED editor C.T. Onions) uses “perversion” for what we would today call malapropisms (e.g., from Dogberry) and minced oaths.

    I kind of wish they’d listed etymological “perversion” as a separate sense. It was technical and transient, but so are plenty of words that are in there already.

  13. Thanks for providing the update!

  14. Lars Mathiesen says

    Reading the OP again, Hat may be pleased to know that the fruit of the beech is bog in Danish, homophonous with the word for book, while the beech, collective and singular, is the umlauted bøg — the umlaut may have been levelled from the plural bøge but the ODS doesn’t say. It was bók in ON. (While ‘books’ is bøger).

    Whence the tree’s umlaut in English?

  15. John Cowan says

    Percy stands in a line with Charles Peirce

    I had no idea there was a third Peircean [dharma] line besides James’s and mine.

  16. John Emerson says

    The 4 year old son of a friend served as the ring-bearer at their wedding, and was tremendously disappointed to find that he wouldn’t be dressed as a bear.

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