Dubya: An egghead or an eggcorn?
Admit it: at some point you’ve asked yourself this question. When you’re anticipating that awful something that might or might not come to pass, should you be saying “if worse comes to worst” or “if worst comes to worst”? (Some of you might even be thinking of a third way of expressing that most disagreeable scenario. Now I’ve got you wondering …) You’re not really sure which is correct, since they sound almost identical coming out of most people’s mouths and you’re wondering whether logically that first word should be a comparative (more) or a superlative (most). Welcome to the world of eggcorns, which we all — or at least most of us — are guilty of uttering with amusing and unknowing regularity. What’s an eggcorn? It’s a word or phrase that results from mishearing or misinterpreting another one, with an element of the original being substituted for one that sounds very similar or identical.
Here are some classic phrases that are often spoken — or spelled — as eggcorns. You might be surprised to find out that you’ve been spouting eggcorns all these years — or even worse: that you’ve been laughing at other people’s eggcorns that aren’t really eggcorns at all …
If worse comes to worst or If worst comes to worst or even If worse comes to worse
Meaning “should the worst possible scenario come to pass”. I’ll let Ben Zimmer explain this one to you, as he did in the New York Times‘s On Language column a couple of years ago. The history and “correct” (or at least the original) version of this expression might surprise you.
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For all intents and purposes or For all intensive purposes
Meaning “for all practical or important purposes”, “practically speaking”. For everyone who says “intensive purposes”, I’m afraid you’ve been using a classic eggcorn. The expression “for all intents and purposes” dates back to the 1500s in English law, where it originally had a longer incarnation: “to all intents, constructions, and purposes”. It can be found in an act of legislation passed by Henry VIII in 1547.
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Champing at the bit or Chomping at the bit
Meaning “to be restlessly impatient to start”. There’s a horsey origin to the phrase. Champ is a verb meaning ‘to make a noisy biting or chewing action with the jaws and teeth”. Horses are said to ‘champ at the bit’, with bit referring to the mouthpiece of a horse’s bridle. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, champ has meant to bite (noisily, on something hard) since about 1577. If you say chomp at the bit, you’re in good company and using an ancient eggcorn of sorts (or you might be an American). Chomp became a variant of champ in the 17th century, although early references have people or animals chomping on food rather than on metal bits. Chomp in the context of “chomping at the bit” has become fairly standard in American English (although the American Heritage Dictionary still lists only champ in this context).
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Slight of hand or Sleight of hand
Referring to a technique used by magicians or card sharps to surreptitiously move or hide cards, coins or other objects to produce an effect. Which is it? Does it rhyme with kite or weight? See this earlier Glossophilia post to find out …
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No holds barred or No holes barred
Meaning “not subject to restriction” or “free from rules or parameters”. If you’re using holes, you’re using an eggcorn. The expression originates in the sport of wrestling, of which there are many forms. Historically there were no real rules restricting the wrestlers’ actions, but once FILA (the sport’s governing body) introduced certain regulations, there were prohibitions on wrestlers’ holds — ie. how they hold their opponents. Nowadays there are two forms of the sport in which no holds are barred: hardcore wrestling and cage fighting. Hence the expression “no holds barred”.
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To the manner born or To the manor born
Meaning, for all intents and purposes, “destined to be suited to the custom or lifestyle in question (often high-class or noble in quality) by virtue of birth” Glossophilia looked at the history of this expression in an earlier post on eggcorns. Find out whether Hamlet described himself as to the manor or manner born — and whether you’ve been in synch with Shakespeare’s hero all these years …
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Toe the line or Tow the line?
Meaning “to conform to a standard or rule”. We covered this athletic (or is it nautical?) phrase earlier on Glossophilia too: see an exploration/explanation here. Do you conform with your feet, or with a long rope attached to a ship?
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To give someone free reign or To give someone free rein
Giving someone “free reign” does seem to make sense, implying that they are being imparted with royal powers as a monarch does when she reigns over her subjects. But the origin of the phrase comes from horse-riding rather than ruling countries. When she comes across troublesome terrain, the rider will allow her horse to navigate the terrain on his own instinct by loosening the reins — and hence you give someone “free rein”.
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I couldn’t care less or I could care less
Meaning “I don’t give two hoots”, or “I really don’t give a damn” (as proclaimed famously by Rhett Butler). Perhaps this is less an eggcorn and more just lazy/evolutionary syllable-dropping — especially by American speakers, amongst whom “I could care less” is more common and becoming standard. But logically, if you really could care less, then don’t you actually care quite a lot?
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Should/could have or Should/could of
Again, this isn’t a true eggcorn but really just represents a common erroneous verb conjugation.
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Eggcorns shouldn’t be confused with malapropisms (when someone mistakenly uses a word that sounds like another word with a very different meaning — with unintended amusing results). For more on single-word malapropisms (featuring the masterful Mr. Malaprop himself, George W. Bush), see this earlier Glossophilia post. Mondegreens are a form of eggcorn, in that they represent an error of the ears. We’ll compile a list of classic mondegreens in a later post.
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Can you think of other eggcorn phrases? Please add them in the comments section below.