If you’re a hare’s breath away from meeting the goal, then for all intensive purposes we’ll say you’ve met it.
Some people would just be overjoyed to hear their bosses make this comment. Others might have to contain their amusement (or annoyance) at the eggcorns.
What are eggcorns? Well, in the sentence above, they are “hare’s breath” and “intensive purposes” (hair’s breadth and intents and purposes are the standard expressions). In general, an eggcorn is a specific kind of language variation that apparently results from a reinterpretation of a standard word or phrase.
Origins of the Term Eggcorn
The term eggcorn can be traced back to a 2003 Language Log post by linguist Mark Liberman. In it, Liberman cites a case in which someone wrote the phrase “egg corns” for “acorns.” Depending on that person’s accent, egg corns and acorns could sound either exactly alike or very similar. Beyond that, though, egg corns also makes sense as a replacement for acorns, from the perspective of someone who doesn’t know how *acorns* is spelled and isn’t familiar with acorn’s etymology. Acorns are shaped kind of like eggs, and, like corn, they are the seed parts of a plant.
Similarly, it makes sense to misunderstand hair’s breadth as hare’s breath. They sound almost alike and both fit with the meaning of the idiom (“a very small amount”). Intensive purposes, too, sounds like intents and purposes. Intensive means something different from intents and, to be sure, but the phrase intensive purposes makes logical sense in the situations in which one would use the standard version of the phrase.
At the time of Liberman’s blog post, there was no recognized name for this kind of mistake, so linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum suggested simply using the term egg corn. Pullum’s suggestion caught on (at least, among people who pay attention to such things). In 2010, the Oxford English Dictionary added a new entry for eggcorn, as follows: “An alteration of a word or phrase through the mishearing or reinterpretation of one or more of its elements as a similar-sounding word.”
Eggcorns Must Make Sense
Some linguists say that this definition isn’t perfect, though. They point out that the defining element of an eggcorn is that is has to be not just a mistake, but a reasonable mistake. There has to be a meaningful connection, not just shared sounds, between the original word/phrase and what the person says. In the words of [the Eggcorn Database](http://eggcorns.lascribe.net/about/), the “crucial element is that the new form makes sense: for anyone except lexicographers or other people trained in etymology, more sense than the original form in many cases.”
Pullum points out that producing an eggcorn is actually a sign of understanding the language well:
> It would be so easy to dismiss eggcorns as signs of illiteracy and stupidity, but they are nothing of the sort. They are imaginative attempts at relating something heard to lexical material already known.
Not All Errors Are Eggcorns
If you write “there idea” when you mean “their idea,” you haven’t created an eggcorn. Looking at the definition of *there*, it is not reasonable to say “there idea.” Substituting there for their is just a case of mixing up homophones.
As another example, in 2014, Texas Governor Rick Perry described American states as “lavatories of innovation and democracy” – presumably he meant “laboratories of innovation and democracy.” Lavatories (a synonym for bathrooms) sounds like laboratories but doesn’t logically fit into Perry’s sentence, so this is not an eggcorn, either.
There are, of course, some borderline cases in which it’s hard to say whether or not something is an eggcorn, but identifiable eggcorns abound nonetheless.
Eggcorns Sometimes Reappear Over Time
In the comments on a blog post, Mark Liberman once pointed out, “Many eggcorns are spontaneously re-invented many times, because they represent a plausible mishearing and sensible re-analysis of a more-or-less opaque word or phrase.”
In other words, because eggcorns are based on a reasonable reinterpretation of an existing word or phrase, many people might independently come up with the same eggcorn. For instance, the Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition of eggcorn itself reveals that people have occasionally referred to acorns as “eggcorns” (or “egg corns”) since at least 1844.
Sometimes eggcorns even become so widespread that they become the dominant expression, and the original “right” way to say it is lost to history – more about that in the next post.