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'Eggcorns': The Gaffes That Spread Like Wildflowers

Please pause if you're about to tell us our headline should say "spread like wildfire."

We intentionally slipped an eggcorn into that line — something we couldn't have done a week ago because, frankly, we'd never heard of eggcorns.

But thanks to Merriam-Webster, which included eggcorn among the more than 1,700 words added to its dictionary this past week, we learned that it is:

"A word or phrase that sounds like and is mistakenly used in a seemingly logical or plausible way for another word or phrase."

Some examples:

"Spread like wildflowers" is an eggcorn when used instead of "spread like wildfire."

"Coldslaw" is an eggcorn if you meant "coleslaw."

"Self phone" is an eggcorn of "cellphone."

You get the idea.

"Eggcorn" itself is an eggcorn. Linguist Geoffrey Pullum is credited with coming up the word, which is the way some people say "acorn."

The difference between an eggcorn and a malapropism is that the latter is a "ludicrous misuse of words," as Webster's New World College Dictionary says, while the former makes some sense in a slightly offbeat way. Consider these eggcorns:

"Never regions" instead of "nether regions."

"Come to not" instead of "come to naught."

"Curtsey call" instead of "courtesy call."

There is a case to be made that they are "seemingly logical or plausible."

One of the more famous examples of a malapropism in the past half century is then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's statement in 1968 that "the policeman isn't there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder."

Emily Brewster, a Merriam-Webster associate editor, tells us in an email that the criteria for inclusion in the dictionary "are the same for all terms: substantial use in a variety of sources over an extended period of time. Each of those is intentionally vague. We're a bit stricter, for example, about what qualifies as 'substantial use' for slang words because they tend to come and go, and also may take a while to settle into a meaning. ... Twelve years for a word like 'eggcorn' isn't atypical."

"Coldslaw" is among her favorite eggcorns. So is getting "a new leash on life"

During the latest "Word Matters" conversation on Weekend Edition, we talk about eggcorns and issue this challenge to the NPR audience: Send us some of your favorites. Email wordmatters@npr.org, share them in this post's comments thread or tweet them to #wordmatters.

Mark Memmott is NPR's standards and practices editor. He co-hosted The Two Way from its launch in May 2009 through April 2014.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.