Time, “This Is What ‘Eggcorns’ Are (and Why They’re Jar-Droppingly Good)”

May 30, 2015

Katy Steinmetz, “This Is What ‘Eggcorns’ Are (and Why They’re Jar-Droppingly Good)” (Time, May 30, 2015)

Eggcorns present us with some options for how we treat each other and our language. We can haughtily correct the anxious person who says they’re “chomping” at the bit, explaining that the original phrase is actually “champing” at the bit, for champ has meant to crush and chew by vigorous and noisy action of the jaws since the 16th century. Or we can take a moment to recognize that, to the modern speaker of English, chomp makes a lot more sense than champ—and to appreciate how convenient it is that a once useful idiom can evolve into a currently useful one by the accidental swapping of a vowel.

“That word champ as a verb only really exists now in that particular idiom,” said Ben Zimmer, linguist and executive editor of Vocabulary.com. “We don’t use it in any other context, so that’s a good candidate for reanalysis.” Zimmer is from that more embracing school of linguists who like to observe language rather than snap their ruler and instruct people on how to use something that is in a continual state of makeover. “Of course, with many of these eggcorns, there will be people who say, ‘No, no no, that’s not the way it is,’” he said. “They’ll mention the new form as proof that someone is uneducated. But this is something that we all do with language, whether we’re educated or uneducated … taking forms and relating them to things we already know.”

Zimmer presents the example of free rein, the original version referring to horses with loose reins that allow free motion, and free reign, the eggcorn that evokes the feeling of a ruler who can do whatever he or she might like with their kingdom. He also mentions “real trooper,” which is a corruption of “real trouper,” conjuring the image of an intrepid soldier rather than a dependable member of an acting troupe. Sure, it’s wrong in a sense, but the change is easy to see as more of an improvement than an error.

Read the rest here.

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