Monday, 10 December 2007

Eggcorns and mondegreen

All you lovely people out there are undoubtedly sick and tired of your English teachers correcting spellings or even (heaven forbid) sniggering at particularly amusing howlers. Those of you in A2 English Language may even have tried arguing that it's 'Language Change in action.'

And here's the good news - sometimes, sometimes, you're right. Only when it makes sense, though.

Mondegreens are the more traditional form - coined by the American writer Sylvia Wright - and the term itself is a mondegreen, that is to say, the hearing of a word or phrase as a homophone or near-homophone in such a way as it acquires new meaning. It usually involves reanalysing where the word divisions are. The term comes from an article in Harper's Magazine where Wright wrote:

When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy's Reliques. One of my favorite poems began, as I remember:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray, [sic]
And Lady Mondegreen.

The fourth line should in fact be 'and laid him on the green' - it's a 17th century ballad. So next time you make up a really bizarre line to a song you've only partially heard, you know what to call it.

However, eggcorns are slightly different. You all know what one meaning of 'eggcorn' is - it's those little things from which great oaks grow. Yes, that's right, acorns. Someone not quite sure of how to spell acorn came up with a reasonable spelling which - crucially - sounds as though it might be etymologically believable or explicable - at least if you're not an etymologist. Other examples might be 'restbite' for 'respite' where you appear to be having a 'rest' from your troubles 'biting' you. The point is, you have to be able to come up with a defence of why your spelling is correct in terms of a folk etymology or metonymy. No simply trying to palm off they're/there on your teacher.

So, two words of the day and a small excuse to argue with your teacher.

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