By Roger Kreuz Ph.D.

The research on “eggcorns” and why they’re so persistent.


  • Eggcorns can be described as slips of the ear.
  • They are the result of how our minds make sense of what we hear.
  • Communication can be impeded by words and phrases that sound alike.

Sometimes it’s the language that’s at fault

“Pass mustard.” “Taken for granite.” “Flaw in the ointment.” If any of these phrases have popped up in an email or a text that you’ve received, you may have thought that the sender’s autocorrect function was to blame. Clearly, what was meant was “pass muster,” “taken for granted,” or “fly in the ointment.” Right? Maybe, but maybe not. Because we learn our native language by hearing it, we might acquire incorrect versions of phrases that are only revealed when we attempt to write them out.

Mistakes like these are referred to as “eggcorns,” which is itself a mishearing of the word “acorn.” They were given that name by linguist Mark Liberman in 2003. Eggcorns can be thought of as mishearings or “slips of the ear.” And in many cases, they make more sense than the original phrases themselves.

A Source of Confusion

Consider the eggcorn “anchors away.” Most people have probably only heard the phrase “anchors aweigh” in the U.S. Naval Academy’s fight song. The word “aweigh,” meaning to raise something, like a ship’s anchor, has been part of the vocabulary of English for over four hundred years. But “aweigh” is used in a very limited context and is rarely seen in its written form. As a result, it’s perfectly reasonable that someone hearing the expression for the first time might learn it—incorrectly—as “anchors away.”

Or how about “duck tape”—that gray, waterproof, cloth-backed adhesive that is oh-so-useful? The correct term is “duct tape,” because it is commonly used to seal cracks around heating and air conditioning ductwork. In this case, however, the eggcorn has become so common that a company, Duck Brands, sells a version of the adhesive under that name and has trademarked the term.

English, like most languages, has a large number of homophones: two or more words that are pronounced the same, like “away” and “aweigh.” There are also many near homophones, such as “muster” and “mustard,” or “duct” and duck.” It’s easy to mishear one for the other, particularly when the correct form is unusual or illogical.

Similar-Sounding Terms

A good example is the eggcorn “doggy-dog,” as in the expression “doggy-dog world.” The actual phrase, “dog-eat-dog,” has been in use for two hundred years to refer to situations in which people are willing to harm each other to get ahead. But we rarely, if ever, talk about dogs actually eating each other, and the eggcorn seems to be related to the phrase “a dog’s life,” or an existence that is unhappy or difficult. It’s hardly surprising, then, that some people mistakenly use “doggy-dog” instead of its original form.

A similar explanation helps to make sense of the eggcorn “old-timer’s disease” for “Alzheimer’s disease.” This form of dementia was named after the German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer, who described the syndrome at a conference in 1906. “Alzheimer” certainly qualifies as an unusual term, and since dementia is associated with the elderly, a slip of the ear in this case is hardly surprising. In addition, many people employ the eggcorn as a (semi)-humorous replacement for the original, which further muddies the waters for those who might be exposed to this term for the first time.

A Useful Distinction

Linguists were quick to adopt the term “eggcorn” because it provides a useful label for such errors. They’re not quite the same as mondegreens: that term refers to misheard phrases in songs or poetry. (An example is “Gladly the cross-eyed bear” instead of “Gladly the Cross I’d Bear,” a line in the hymn “Keep Thou My Way.”) Eggcorns are also different from malapropisms, which typically aren’t homophonic—like “monogamy” and “monotony,” or “electoral” and “electrical.” You can even find “eggcorn” in reference works—the word was added to the venerable Oxford English Dictionary in 2010, and Merriam-Wester followed suit in 2015.

Eggcorns provide a good example of how communication can be impeded by words and phrases that sound alike. Miscommunication is commonly thought of as a failure by the speaker or the hearer, but as I describe in my recently published book, sometimes it is the language itself that is to blame.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.