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Opinion

When I use a word . . . Medical eggcorns

BMJ 2024; 385 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.q855 (Published 12 April 2024) Cite this as: BMJ 2024;385:q855
  1. Jeffrey K Aronson
  1. Centre for Evidence Based Medicine, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  2. Follow Jeffrey on X (formerly Twitter): @JKAronson

There are many different types of verbal errors that people make from time to time. They include folk etymology, mondegreens, and malapropisms. Eggcorns are verbal errors in which a word is replaced by another that sounds like it and typically shares with it some semantic connotation. Old-timer’s disease for Alzheimer’s is a good example. In this week’s column I list and discuss some medical examples of eggcorns.

Lapsus linguae

We all make verbal mistakes from time to time—slips of the tongue, or lapsūs linguae to give them their Latin name. The written counterpart is a lapsus calami, a slip of the pen.

“Lapsus linguae” made its first appearance in English in an early comedy by John Dryden, Sir Martin Mar-all or The Feign’d Innocence (1667), translated from a play by Molière, L’Étourdi, ou les contretemps. It comes in Act 3, Scene 1, in which, after a complicated piece of business about whether a play is a tragedy or a comedy and whether, if one or the other, it might or might not be preferred by a certain young lady, Sir Martin has a falling out with some new acquaintances because of something he says. Left alone with his manservant he says to him “Why do you frown upon me so, when you know your Looks go to the Heart of me? What have I done besides a little lapsus linguae?”

In fact Sir Martin’s error was not strictly speaking a slip of the tongue, more a slip of the mind, but there are so many different types of mis-speaking that it can be hard to differentiate them.

Mondegreens

A mondegreen is a misunderstood or misinterpreted word or phrase resulting from a mishearing, especially of the lyrics to a song.1 A slip of the ear, as it were.

The word was coined by the American journalist Sylvia Wright in an article published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1954, “The Death of Lady Mondegreen.”2 “When I was a child,” she wrote, “my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques [of Ancient English Poetry]. 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.’

“By now,” she went on, after a digression or two, “several of you more alert readers are jumping up and down in your impatience to interrupt and point out that, according to the poem, after they killed the Earl Amurray, they laid him on the green. I know about this, but I won’t give in to it. Leaving him to die all alone without even anyone to hold his hand—I won’t have it. The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.”

Here are some medical or quasi-medical mondegreens3:

● Now, if a cyst turns out benign, I don’t mind, I don’t mind (Jimi Hendrix, “If 6 was 9”).

● The whole liver dissection was a portal gland (think Elvis).

● I’ll be loving you, internally (in Charlie Chaplin’s film Limelight).

● The girl with colitis goes by (Lennon and McCartney)

● Black toast intolerance.

● Very close veins.

● Meaty urologists.

● The sanatorium specialised in the treatment of the Berkeley locusts (US pronunciation please).

But are they all really mondegreens? The definition specifies that mondegreens arise from mishearings of lyrics to a song, and the last four of those don’t fit the bill. But there is a get-out clause—the word “especially” in the definition. So perhaps they too qualify.

On the other hand, perhaps they are malapropisms?

Malapropisms

Malapropism is the ludicrous misuse of words, especially in mistaking a word for another resembling it.4 The poet, essayist, and critic Leigh Hunt first used the word in 1830, basing it on the character of Mrs Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals (1775). Sheridan derived her name from the French phrase mal à propos, inappropriate. Here’s a famous example from the play: “Sure, if I reprehend any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!” The translation is not too difficult.

You can also call a malapropism a Dogberryism, after Dogberry, the constable in Much Ado About Nothing, who makes similar errors. Here he is in Act 3, Scene V: “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons.” Another Shakespearian character suffers from the same complaint—Mistress Quickly. Here she is in Henry IV, Part 2, Act 2, Scene 1: “I pray you since my exion is entered, and my case so openly known to the world, let him be brought in to his answer.” She means “action.” And in the Merry Wives of Windsor she says “You have brought her into such a Canaries, as 'tis wonderfull: the best Courtier of them all, when the court was at Windsor, could never have brought her to such a Canarie.” The word she wanted here was “quandary.”

So are my last four medical mondegreens really malapropisms? Probably not. There is a better term.

Eggcorns

In 2003 Mark Liberman posted a brief note on the Language Log, relating the case of a woman who had written “egg corns” for “acorns.”4 He thought that this error could not be explained as one of the standard errors, such as folk etymology, malapropisms, or mondegreens. What should it be called? A week later he added an update, saying that Geoffrey Pullum had suggested that it should metonymically be called an eggcorn.

Then, a couple of weeks after that, Arnold Zwicky posted a piece, or rather a peace, on the Language Log, in which he discussed different types of what he labelled “reshapings.”5 Reshaping “acorn” as “egg corn” could well be classified as folk etymology, he suggested, at least in the absence of a better term. He defined folk etymology as a reinterpretation of an expression composed of parts that aren't etymologically justified, which might or might not involve messing with the phonology. For example, the origin of the word “marijuana” is unknown, but folk etymology would have it that it comes from a Spanish name such as Maria-Juana; it’s a nice idea but hardly credible. Other examples include the backronyms posh (“port out starboard home”), ned (“non-educated delinquent”), cop (“constable on patrol”), golf (“gentlemen only, ladies forbidden”), and tip (“to insure promptness”). The origins of these words may not always be clear, but these supposed origins are false.

Positing a fivefold classification of reshapings, Zwicky concluded that by mixing and matching the different types you could end up with at least 40 different varieties of accidental reshapings, with a dearth of terms to describe them. Not to mention deliberate ones, such as puns and, one might add, soramimi (Japanese for “mishearing”), a version of mondegreens, in which the distortion is engineered deliberately rather than mistakenly, usually executed for comic effect.6

So, for want of a better term, “eggcorn” was accepted and has stuck. In a later Language Log,7 Liberman suggested that words that were becoming recognised as eggcorns had not only phonological similarity to their correct counterparts, but also semantic connections. For example, as he wrote, “[the word] ‘corn’ is sort of like ‘seed,’ and the seed part of an acorn looks sort of like an egg.” This may seem a little contrived, but it is true that the most satisfying eggcorns are words that share both phonological and semantic similarities with the correct forms, as some medical examples demonstrate.

Medical eggcorns

So it appears that the last four of what I previously labelled mondegreens, given above, are in fact eggcorns. About 650 eggcorns are now listed in Chris Waigl’s database, begun in late 2004.8 From those, I have picked a selection with medical relevance, modifying them in some cases; the eggcorns are on the left and their proper counterparts on the right:

● a poseable thumb: an opposable thumb

● antidotal evidence: anecdotal evidence

● averse drug reaction: adverse drug reaction

● black toast intolerant: lactose intolerant

● cholester oil: cholesterol

● cognitive dissidence: cognitive dissonance

● conjunctive heart failure: congestive heart failure

● diarrhetic: diuretic

● eggtopic [pregnancy]: ectopic [pregnancy]

● elementary canal/tract: alimentary canal/tract

● hydroseal: hydrocele

● limp oedema: lymphoedema

● me grain/my grain: migraine

● Old-Timer's: Alzheimer's

● planter warts: plantar warts

● rabid: rapid

● spinal/spermatic/umbilical chord: spinal/spermatic/umbilical cord

● vocal chords: vocal cords

Examples of the use of these eggcorns are given in the eggcorn website, but here are some additional examples that I have found in the biomedical literature.

● “Antidotal evidence suggests that a comprehensive follow-up program increases patient satisfaction, improves communication between the ED, primary care providers, and specialists.”9 And indeed evidence should be an antidote to fallacious reasoning.

● “Cognitive dissident” is the title of a news item in a journal called Tobacco Control about the medical problems of a Chinese dissident called Wei Jingsheng.10 It is obviously a pun rather than an eggcorn, but irresistible as an item for inclusion here.

● “ Intramural ova of Enterobius vermicularis in the appendix-an egg-topic location!” Another appropriate pun.11

● “The visibility of elementary canal in the belly drastically reduced.”12 This could, of course, be a real thing. The paper from which it comes (and it includes three other examples) has been cited several times, and I have looked at the full versions of 15 papers that cited it. Only one also refers to the “elementary canal,” which “coils up to the vent.”13 I suspect that this is an eggcorn. Here, however, is a true blue example, from the English abstract of a paper in Chinese: “We have reconstructed the portal vein, modified the Whipple operation, reconstructed the elementary tract using Roux-Y interposed jejunum with orientatied [sic] intussusception of artificial papilla.”14

● Four examples of “planter warts” that I have found are all typos in PubMed, the spelling being correct in the originals, apart from a single typo in one. One can, nevertheless, imagine a planter suffering the affliction from having walked barefoot in the fields.

● There are many examples of “spinal/spermatic/umbilical chord,” partly because “chord” was an obsolete spelling of “cord”; there are 12 examples listed in PubMed from the 18th and 19th centuries. The most interesting modern examples are those in which spinal chordomas are described in the “spinal chord,” of which there is one English language example.15

In addition to these, I have also seen “Hippocrates” rendered as “hypocrites” and elsewhere “mnemonic” rendered as “pneumonic.”16

I was sorry not to have found other medical examples of eggcorns. Who, for example, isn’t intolerant of black toast? And couldn’t a hydroseal conceivably be a surgical device for treating a hydrocele?

My own, non-eggcorn, contribution to all this is an etymological disquisition on the rapid responses that appear in The BMJ, some of which are undoubtedly rabid.17

A proposed neologism

The technical term that covers all these types of errors is acyrology, from Greek words meaning a word (λόγος) without (a-) authority (κῦρος). It is simply defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as “incorrect use of language” and it dates from before all the rest, the earliest citation being from 1550.

Thinking metathetically, and recalling that the Greek word for frost or extreme cold is κρύος, a new word suggests itself: acryology, which could be used to mean the study of a lack of cold weather, in other words the study of global warming.

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not peer reviewed.

References