Harvesting Eggcorns: Watching Your Figures (of Speech), Part 2

Bowl of acorns

Photo by Kirsten Skiles (Flickr)

Fairly often, the letters we type to spell out a word or phrase don’t exactly match how we hear or pronounce it, and so it’s probably not surprising that eggcorns are quite common. What is an eggcorn, you might ask? It’s when you make yourself look silly by spelling a word or phrase how you heard it, using a wrong word or part of a word, rather than how it’s actually supposed to be written. The word “eggcorn” is an example of this: It derives from a misspelling of “acorn.” We’ve looked at some embarrassing examples of misspellings before, but there are always plenty more to be found, especially since English is a language that’s rife with idioms, some of which don’t always make sense to modern ears. Here are a few mistakes to watch out for in your writing:

    • At their beckon call: It’s “beck and call,” with the old word “beck” meaning “beckon.” So basically, if you’re at their beck and call, they can get you to respond by beck/beckon (gesturing) or by call (speaking).
    • Coldslaw: While coleslaw is usually served cold, it’s spelled with an E, not a D. The “cole” part comes from a Dutch word, “kool,” which means “cabbage.”
    • Deep-seeded anxiety: It makes sense that an emotion might be planted deep down like a seed, but no, it’s “deep-seated,” positioned securely and deeply.
    • Doggy-dog world: The correct expression here doesn’t paint a pretty picture, but that’s sort of the point. It’s “dog-eat-dog world,” a world so vicious and ruthless that everyone’s out to bite everyone else, so to speak. (Sorry, Snoop Dogg.)
    • For all intensive purposes: What would be “intensive purposes”? Purposes that were very in-depth or hard-working? The correct phrase here is “for all intents and purposes.”

Photo by Jennifer C. (Flickr)

  • Give up the goat: Sometimes, a little bit of logic is all you need to figure out that a phrase is wrong. How would giving up an animal mean dying? It’s possible but pretty far-fetched. The expression should be “give up the ghost,” as in having your ghost escape your body because you’ve died.
  • Mute point: “Mute” means silent. “Moot,” however, means unimportant or not worth debating, which is the more accurate term here: A moot point is something that isn’t worth discussing.
  • New leash on life: The mental picture here does have a certain appeal if you’re trying to convey that you’ve newly taken control of life (by putting it on a leash, metaphorically). But the correct expression is “new lease on life,” alluding to the financial agreement, and writing “leash” just makes you look doggone silly.
  • One in the same: When speakers get lazy pronouncing the word “and,” confusion can arise. “One in the same” sounds like something is inside itself, but “one and the same” uses redundancy to emphasize that the two things referred to are the same.
  • Shoe-in: I’m not sure how footwear got into this one, but then again, “shoo” isn’t a hugely common word anymore. The term “shoo-in” to describe a sure winner derives from horse racing: If a horse was allowed to win a fixed race or was dominant enough to trounce all comers, a rider would only have to shoo it to the finish line rather than working hard for the win.
  • Tow the line: With this one, I picture someone pulling a rope around behind them. What good would that do anyone? The actual expression for when you need to fall in line and do what you’re told is “toe the line,” which comes from the sport of track and field, in which runners would have to stand poised with their toe against the starting line, waiting for the race to begin.

If you’ve been making any of these mistakes, now’s a good time to break bad habits. What other examples of eggcorns have you come across? Let us know in the comments!

Mindy Young, an editor for Online Writing Jobs, got her start as a newspaper copy editor after earning her B.A. from Russell Sage College in Troy, NY. She spent nearly 13 years editing stories, writing headlines, and putting together pages for daily newspapers, and along the way, she also had the opportunity to write food columns and restaurant reviews. After earning a pair of Associated Press awards and a Suburban Newspaper Association award, she left journalism for the world of content marketing, where she puts her skills to work every day for OWJ clients and writers.

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