Language is great when it works, but sometimes it’s a lot more amusing when it goes horribly wrong. Frequently, these mistakes also have rather interesting names, and indeed histories. So, without much ado, here’s a few of my favourites.
1. Mondegreens: This is something we all do, but you might not have known there was a proper word for it. Effectively this is hearing one word or phrase as another. These days, the most common are in song lyrics. According to one of my favourite radio presenters (Stuart Maconie on Six Music), the most common of these is from Purple Haze where people mis-hear ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky’ as ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy’. I frequently do this myself and for many years thought ‘Forever in blue jeans’ was ‘For Reverend Blue Jeans’! The word Mondegreen was coined in 1954 and itself comes from the mis-hearing of an old Scottish folk tune, in which, as a child, the writer Sylvia Wright heard the lines ‘They have slain the Earl of Moray and laid him on the green’ as ‘They have slain the Earl of Moray and Lady Mondegreen.’
2. Eggcorns: Again, eggcorns is not a word you might be familiar with, but you’ll know exactly what it means when you find out. It’s when someone mistakes one word for another but somehow the meaning remains the same. The most famous example is the use of ‘Old-timers disease’ for ‘Alzheimer’s disease’, but the word itself, which was coined as recently as 2003, comes from replacing ‘Acorn’ with ‘Eggcorn’, which, while wrong, you know the meaning of right away. If you want to waste some time on a Friday afternoon rather than work, you can check out the Eggcorn Database for more examples, some of which are very amusing.
3. Malapropisms: In many ways malapropisms are the opposite of Eggcorns. This is where you replace one word with another that has a similar sound which has a completely different meaning. One of the best examples comes from Yogi Berra when he said ‘Texas has a lot of electrical votes’ rather than ‘electoral votes’. If that sounds like the kind of thing a recent American President would have said, you’re right but I’ll get to that later. The word Malapropsim comes from a character called Mrs. Malaprop from a 18th century play called the Rivals.
4. Spoonerisms: Spoonerisms are those mistakes that newsreaders dread, but occasionally make. It’s when you exchange the first letters or syllables of two neighbouring words to get something completely different. Named after the British Academic Reverend William Spooner, one of my favourites attributed to him is when he used the phrase ‘The Lord is a shoving leopard’ rather than ‘The Lord is a loving shepherd’.
5. Soramimis: Soramimis are related to Mondegreens, but involve words or lyrics which mean one thing in one language but are interpreted as meaning something different in another one because of what they sound like. For example, the line ‘We transgress the context of commonplaceness’ from the 1999 song ‘Decade of Therion’ by the death metal band Behemoth can be interpreted in Polish as ‘Łyżwiarz wie, że kotek odkopał prezent’ or to give it its English translation ‘The ice-skater knows that the pussycat has dug up the present’.
6. Neologisms: Neologisms are new words or phrases. When you first hear them, they’ll often sound odd, but after a while, if they are used enough, they may become a normal part of the language. Neologisms might start with a single person, but often the precise point they enter the common lexicon is unclear. Neologisms which have made it into the dictionary in recent years include things like laser (an acronym for ‘Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation’), Taser (another acronym, well of sorts, this time for ‘Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle’) and Blogging (which originates from ‘Web logging’). Indeed, many of the above words started off as neologisms. Interestingly, the zombie genre is often repleat with neologisms for the undead, such as walkers, twitchers and (from my own book) drifters, each of which signify a slightly different class of zombie-like creature with its own specific characteristics. While the use of neologisms by children is considered normal, the tendency to use them in adulthood can be a sign of psychopathy.
7. Stunt Words: A stunt word is a neologism which has no meaning, and they are often used by writers and performers for poetic or humourous effects. Dr. Seuss is probably the most familiar example, but they are remarkably common in literature. Interestingly, the ability to infer the (hypothetical) meaning of a nonsense word from context is used to test for brain damage.
8. Backronyms: Backronym is both a neologism in its own right, and a way to create a meaning for other neologisms. An acronym is where the initial letters of a phrase create a word in its own right (such as the laser example given above). A backronym is where a phrase is created from a specific word, often already in common usage, to justify its meaning. For example, the term ‘Ned’ is commonly used in Scotland as a term for a specific type of juvenile delinquent. While the term has been around for years, recently it has been defined as standing for ‘Non-Educated Delinquent’, and has even been used in the title of a film about ned culture. Others include ‘All Day I Dream About Sports’ (for the sports brand Adidas), ‘First On Race Day’ (for the motor company Ford) and Port Out Starboard Home (for the origins of the word ‘Posh’). Of course, some of the worst offenders when it comes to backronyms are politicians. Take for example the ‘Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001’, more commonly known as the USA PATRIOT act.
9. Bushisms: Bushisms are really a collection of many of the above mistakes with a few others which don’t really have their own names thrown in for good measure and are named after the former US President George W. Bush because he frequently made them while speaking. One of my favourites is ‘There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again’. Slightly more worrying is ‘Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.’ or ‘For every fatal shooting, there were roughly three non-fatal shootings. And, folks, this is unacceptable in America. It’s just unacceptable. And we’re going to do something about it’. And then there’s the classic ‘They misunderestimated me’. It will be interesting to see if the word Bushism (itself a neologism) will, like Spoonerism and Malapropism, become codified into the English lexicon and live on long after its original namesake.
10. Typos: Of course, all of the above refer primarily to the spoken word, but similar things exist in the written word. While they are generally grouped under the term of ‘typos’ (a neologism which originates from ‘typographic error’), they probably fall into a number of different classes. Probably most amusing are the single letter substitutions (SLSs) that can completely change the meaning of a word or phrase. There are to particularly famous examples of this which are household names but that you might not even realise originated in SLSs. The first is the ‘Lonely Planet’ travel guides. This comes from the lyrics of a Joe Cocker song which starts ‘Once while travelling across the sky, this lovely planet caught my eye..’ This was misheard by the founders as ‘Lonely Planet’ (making it a mondegreen!), and so the brand was born. The second is the computer game ‘Donkey Kong‘. Have you ever wondered why it’s called donkey kong when it’s about someone trying to defeat a gorilla? Well, one story claims that it’s an SLS which occurred during translation and it should have been the much more logical ‘Monkey Kong’, although this may well be an urban myth.
Of course, modern spell-checking programs are meant to do away with such things, but they only work if the typo doesn’t happen to create a real world. I heard great example of this yesterday where someone came across an employment training course titled ‘Learning how to work for otters’ rather than ‘others’. These are, apparently, known as ‘Atomic Typos‘ because of their potential to do so much damage if they go undetected. I’m not immune from these and at one point, when writing For Those In Peril On The Sea, realised I’d created such an Atomic Typo when I’d accidentally replaced the ‘o’ in rope with an ‘a’, completely changing the intended meaning of the following request from one character to another: ‘Jon, give me a hand with this rope.’ Luckily, I spotted this before it was too late. Unfortunately, the same wasn’t true of the author of a poster I once saw at conference which stated in six-inch high letters across the top that it was about ‘Pubic Attitudes Towards Whales And Dolphins In Western Scotland’ rather than the intended public attitudes.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.
To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.