Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Eggcorns, malaprops, mondegreens, and plain idioms

This is what a reader posted yesterday on an xword blog: "I remain impressed with how non-native English speakers adopt the language so well, yet there are always some instances of idioms that don't turn out so well. I cite a German guy from last night's dinner party who worried about throwing the kid out with the bathtub, and a former German colleague who asked for ballpoint figures...Anyone can make these minor errors, of course, but I find extra amusement when they're stated in a slightly foreign accent."

I agree, especially about the "slightly foreign accent", and the examples really made me laugh—they definitely struck a chord. Since the puzzle blog does not allow us to have more fun with this, let's do it here. For starters, I will remind everyone in my first comment of what a malapropism, a mondegreen, and an eggcorn is b/c it seems to me that much of the funny stuff falls into one of these categories— I certainly have committed sins in every one of them.


Ulrich said...

A malapropism is a substitution of one word for another with a similar sound, but different meaning.
Example: He's the pineapple [instead of pinnacle] of politeness.

A mondegreen is the substitution of a word or phrase in a song or text for a similar-sounding one.
Example: "José [instead of Oh say], can't you see..." at the beginning of the National Anthem (understandable if you know that "José" is typically pronounced "Hosay" by "Anglos").

An eggcorn is the substitution of a word for a similar-sounding one, where the original meaning of the phrase survives, in some way. That's the big difference between an eggcorn and the two substitutions above.
Example (from my own past): "I'm sick entire..." instead of "I'm sick and tired...". I had never seen the phrase in print (at least not at a conscious level) and thought that the ungrammatical sue of "entire" was an interesting idiom.

Ulrich said...

Another, related topic of interest to me: Which idioms are the same across languages and which are not.

To "break the ice" [between two people] is the same in Englsh and German. But in German, the "straw that breaks the camel's back" become the "drop that makes the barrel run over".

mac said...

In Dutch the comparison is exactly like the German.

We use a lot of these expressions and adages in the Dutch language, and it sometimes gets hilareous when I try to translate them into English.... Sometimes I'm not certain in which language I learned of it.

mac said...

There is a malapropism in the comment by Paul in mn this morning: He claims something through him instead of "threw him".

Great Yves Montand story, Ulrich!

fikink said...

I ran into "mondegreen" in my continuing investigation of Internet memes. I was reading about a Youtube director named Mike Sutton who routinely adds subtitles to foreign songs, sometimes with very funny consequences. His is known as "Buffalax" and now the term "buffalaxed" is synonymous with mondegreens on the Internet.
Some of those I know may very well just come from people I know, e.g., Mr. Fikink, when a boy, used to think the song from The Music Man was called, The Sadder Budweiser Girl.
Ulrich, would Archie Bunker's referring to birth control pills as "birth patrol" qualify as an eggcorn?

Ulrich said...

@fikink: yes, I think so. He also claimed a Jewish attorney (?) wore a "Yamaha" on his head. BTW An eggcorn is in itself an eggcorn (originally "acorn")

I love mondegreens especially when they come from children--they seem to indicate that children have learned to live with the fact that the world of adults makes no sense.

fikink said...

ha! "Acorn" did cross my mind. Thanks for confirming it.
When I was very, very small, I thought we were "human beans" - I was probably the victim of someone's (Dit's?) poor elocution. Made sense to me.

Myles Callum said...

I'm a little late to this potty--er,
party, but enjoyed all your malamondecorns!

Ulrich said...

@myles: It's not over yet. Let's add spoonerisms (the swapping of letters, syllables, or whole words in an established phrase). Example (from Nabokov's Pnin): Kidney of the cancer.

The best one I ever committed: "He knows which butt his side is breaded on". (To my foreign readers: The English phrase is "He knows which side his bread is buttered on")

miriam b said...

@ulrich: In Russian, the idiom equivalent to "the last straw" is "the last drop" (poslednii klaypa).

I have a friend who's a reliable source of malapropisms. My favorite: "Lord and behold."

My Russian grandmother used to say that something or someone went "forth and back". I don't think that falls into any of the above categories. But when you think about it, it makes sense. You have to go forth before you can go back.

I could go on and on - but it's time for dinner.

miriam b said...

I meant "klyapa".

Myles Callum said...

Would love to do Spoonerisms, but it's been a busy day and I have to get back to chewing the doors.

Ulrich said...

@miriam b: I think it goes to show that both the Russians and the Germans are a hard-drinking people.

BTW apologies if I sound a bit didactic in this thread: I know that I'm picking up readers from abroad, and I would like them to have fun, too.

Ulrich said...

Here's a favorite: "Time wounds all heels" by Jane Sherwood Ace

miriam b said...

An example of an eggkorn: A friend of a friend reportedly maintains firmly that "to all intensive purposes" is correct.

I've amassed a collection of malapropisms. A few favorites:

"He looked at me like two heads."

"They were living high off the hog of the land." This one seems to be in a special category as it conflates two perfectly respectable idioms with hilarious results.

"You hit the nail on the nose."


Ulrich, I'm sure that you were not around when Easy Aces, with Jane and Goodman Ace, was a radio staple back in the 30's and 40's. I remember it fondly. Here's a link which may interest you.

fergus said...

Oh, and on our third drink, Dusselldorf Astrid got all serious and asked me what I really wanted in life. I was frivolous and replied that entertainment was good enough. She then blurted out, "I want a penis," which left me confused until I realized what she was actually looking for was merely the synonym of mirth and contentment.

Ulrich said...

@miriam b: Thanks for the link--great stuff.

@fergus: Yes, we Germans tend to get serious after the third drink. It sets us free to tackle questions we would not dare to address when sober:-)

BTW Are you sure Astrid did not mean what she said?

Ulrich said...

Fresh off the press: One of the videos linked to on today's xword blog has, at its end, the following message:

Please take the time to look at our page for more grate videos

--what is the world coming to?

fikink said...

When I edited a small town newspaper, I used to keep a list of the missteps of my young journalism students (which I can't find at the moment). It was the most rewarding job I ever had because they were so earnest in trying to make their writing interesting. It often was very colorful... the sports reporter wrote that the mayor's daughter "turned a trick" in left field and the "lifestyles" reporter wrote that the organist couldn't make it to the Sunday services so everyone sang Acapulco...to this day, I am still trying to find the words to that song!

Ulrich said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ulrich said...

@fikink: Well, I'm singing Acapulco very often when I'm doing my DIY construction thing and the radio is not playing--so, I know that song:-)

@miriam: My "I have a chicken to pick with you" left a colleague befuddled some time ago--little did he know that I had conflated the German "I have a chicken to pluck with you" with the English "I have a bone to pick with you"--both mean the same thing.

miriam b said...

I Googled and found this gem:

Kernerman English Multilingual Dictionary

have a bone to pick with (someone)

to have something to argue about with (a person)

Arabic: لَدَيْهِ خِلافٌ على شَيئٍ مع شَخْصٍ ما
Chinese (Simplified): 同某人有争论
Chinese (Traditional): 同某人爭論
Czech: mít otevřené účty s
Danish: have en høne at plukke
Dutch: een appeltje te schillen hebben met
Estonian: kellegagi on kana kitkuda
Finnish: olla jonkun kanssa kana kynittävänä
French: avoir un compte à régler avec qqn
German: ein Hühnchen mit jemand zu rupfen haben
Greek: έχω λογαριασμούς να ξεκαθαρίσω με κπ.
Hungarian: elintéznivalója van vkivel
Icelandic: eiga óleyst deiluefni við en
Indonesian: sengketa, mempunyai persoalan yang harus diselesaikan
Italian: avere un conto in sospeso con
Japanese: ~に対して苦情がある
Latvian: būt kārtojamiem rēķiniem ar kādu
Lithuanian: išsiaiškinti nemalonų reikalą su kuo nors
Norwegian: ha en høne å plukke med noen
Polish: mieć z kimś na pieńku
Portuguese (Brazil): ter contas a acertar com alguém
Portuguese (Portugal): ter contas a acertar
Romanian: a avea un motiv de ceartă cu cineva
Russian: иметь претензии, счёты
Slovak: musieť si niečo s niekým vybaviť
Slovenian: imeti račune s kom
Spanish: tener una cuenta que ajustar con alguien
Turkish: anlaşmazlık ve tartışma nedeni olmak

So it would seem that the Norwegians and Danes pluck chickens along with the Germans.

The translation of the Russian phrase is "to have a claim on an account", which is very similar to the French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and (educated guess) Latvian and Romanian phrase meaning "have an account to settle".

Hey Mac, do the Dutch peel apples, or is that just a bad guess oon my part?

miriam b said...

I noticed on another such list that the Swedes apparently pluck a goose. This topic threatens to take on a life of its own.

See you anon. I want some lunch and then I need to do chores (or chew doors, as Mr. Callum so memorably put it). I also have to go buy some hardware from my dearest kneeler.

fikink said...

So is the bone we pick with someone the proverbial bone of contention?

mac said...

@miriam b: yes, you're right, it does mean "to have an apple to peel with". It is quite amazing how many diminutives the Dutch use in everyday language. It is helpful for non-native speakers, since the article is always "het" with them, never "de".

Ulrich said...

German Hühnchen is a diminuitive, too--of Huhn. Anyway, the German version Miriam found is absolutely correct.

I love threads that take on a life of their own--they relieve me from coming up with new topics every few days to motivate friends to come back to KrautBlog.

mac said...

That is so right, Ulrich, we now have three discussions going that I check out every day! Lovely.

Ulrich said...

@miriam b: I had contacted a native Lithuanian to get a translation of the phrase in that language, and that's what she wrote back: "to clear up an unpleasant matter with someone".

It seems that either Lithuanian doesn't have a metaphorical expression like many other languages do, or whoever compiled the list didn't know.

The first possibility is not unlikely b/c the French expression is also less metaphorical--in fact, German has a similar one, in addition to the plucked hen: eine Rechnung mit jemand zu begleichen ("to have an account to settle with somebody").

acme said...

I worked for a lawyer whose wife spoke in mixed metaphors...
"Harry smokes like a fish"
"In the morning, I'm up like a light"
"We'll burn that bridge when we get to it"

It would be great to see a collection of Archie Bunkerisms!
I wonder if Norman Lear kept a collection!

Last week I accidentally said "I got lost in the shovel" which led to an idea for a puzzle, but I won't spill the beings yet!

Ulrich said...

@acme: I you won't spill the beings, you could at least spell the beans.

To those of you who have some German: My own mishaps with Englsih were mirrored by my wife's when she learned German in (West) Berlin. She once walked up to a bank teller and wanted to say, in German, "I need some information"--out came Ich brauche eine Zukunft ("I need a future") when she should have said Ich brauche eine Auskunft.

mac said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mac said...

We also had some problems while living in Hamburg.
One day my husband and son, a guitar player, went to Karstadt on the Moenckebergstrasse, looking for a part or accessory. They went to information and asked: "Wo essen die Gitarren?". A little Latin is a dangerous thing.

PhillySolver said...

Mixed metaphors aplenty...

We could stand here and talk until the cows turn blue.
He was watching me like I was a hawk.
I’ll get it by hook or ladder.
He’s a wolf in cheap clothing.
I wouldn’t eat that with a ten-foot pole.
I can read him like the back of my book.
It’s as easy as falling off a piece of cake.
He’s burning the midnight oil from both ends.
He’s a little green behind the ears.
We have to get all our ducks on the same page.

fikink said...

Sounds like a boatload of political pundits up the creek without a chicken in every pot!

Ulrich said...

@phillysolver: A real mm feast--I laughed out loud at some of them.

fikink said...

This just in:
A hyperventilating financial analyst on CNBC, at the conclusion of the joint economic hearing this morning, said:
"Isn't this like slamming the barn door after the horse is dead?"
Block that metaphorical tantrum!

miriam b said...

My daughter-in-law is a high-powered executive. Nonetheless, she is apparently capable of an occasional howler. My son emailed this to me today:

>>Pauline was discussing a job option and said she might “throw her hat in a towel".<<

BTW, English is her first language.

A friend once had to wait "till the cows dried up". Maybe this was before they turned blue. I like the latter better, because it's s true mixd metaphor.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ulrich, your krautblog is very interesting and, as I mean, important, because it is a bgidge between peaople and cultures. Pleas don´t correct my bad English; perhaps it will become more charming, when we correspond for a longer time (?).Your old friend Volker, who studied architecture with you in Berlin.

Ulrich said...

@Volker: Great to hear from you! I'm looking forward to more comments from you.