Tuesday, June 2, 2015

What was that you said?

I saw a link to a funny story that I missed on NPR today about "eggcorns."  An "eggcorn", according to Merriam-Webster, is "a word or phrase that sounds like and is mistakenly used in a seemingly logical or plausible way for another word or phrase." The print version of the story lists some very funny "eggcorns." Look it over if you want a chuckle. If you live in North America I can guarantee you have heard many of these. My favorite was missing, though: window seal for window sill. I heard a friend say that a few years ago but I thought it just a regional vowel substitution. Then I saw it written in lesson plans when I was substitute teaching later that spring. One of the assignments could be found, the teacher wrote, in a book on the window seal. Since this was a 6th grade English classroom with a few stuffed animals as well as books on the window sill, I hunted for a stuffed seal, hoping to find the book in question there! No seal, but I found the book--on the sill.

It's problematic when a middle school teacher makes these mistakes, but other people who should know better make them, too. And though it may be fun to laugh at friends who use language so idiosyncratically, you should probably let them know it also reveals a lot to other listeners. Those of us who are in the business of communications know that such verbal mis-steps are markers that identify the speaker as someone who is either not well-read, has not ventured too far outside a closed community, or is over-confident or stubborn. There may be good reasons for misunderstanding a word or phrase, but someone who wants to use it correctly and is unsure how to say it or spell it will look it up. When I gently point out "eggcorns" to students (and the occasional client) I find their willingness to self-correct correlates directly to each person's ability to master the art of dynamic communication.

But hey! If you want to keep misusing words, be my guest. There are plenty of people who will gladly rush in to fill the vacuum created by your lost credibility. After all, as Gloria Pritchett will tell you, it's a doggy-dog world out there!