Mondegreen vs. Eggcorn

The ants are my friends.

Dear Word Detective:  What is the difference between “eggcorn” and “mondegreen”?  I searched the archives and see that you discussed “mondegreen” in 1997 using the same examples as were used recently to define “eggcorn.”  Are they synonymous?  If so, I must say I will continue to use “mondegreen” on the rare occasion that I need it. It sounds so much more impressive. — Krista.

That’s a great question.  You’re right, of course.  There’s a definite overlap in my explanations of “eggcorn” and “mondegreen.”  And I agree that “mondegreen” is the more impressive term, especially since the story behind it is fun to tell.  But the short answer to your question is that no, mondegreens and eggcorns are not quite the same thing.  The longer answer is, as usual, longer, and requires a bit of recapping for the folks who, at this point, are wondering what the heck we’re talking about.

A “mondegreen” is a mishearing of a popular song lyric, motto, poem or the like.  The classic (and probably apocryphal) example is the small child who calls her ragged teddy bear “Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear” because she has heard the hymn “Gladly the Cross I’d Bear.”   A more recent example is the John Fogerty song “Bad Moon Rising,” one line of which (“There’s a bad moon on the rise”) has been misheard by listeners so often over the years as “There’s a bathroom on the right” that Fogerty has taken to puckishly including the “bathroom” line in his performances of the song.

The term “mondegreen” for this sort of thing was coined by the writer Sylvia Wright in a 1954 article in Harper’s magazine.  As a child, Wright had heard the Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl of Murray,” which included the line “They hae slay the Earl of Murray, And Lady Mondegreen,” and she was very sad about the death of the brave Earl and his lovely Lady.  Years later, she learned that the line actually ended “… and laid him on the green.”  So she lost Lady Mondegreen, but we gained a good term for such bizarre mishearings of lyrics and poems.

An “eggcorn” is a mishearing or mutation that actually makes sense, or at least some sense, and so tends to spread from person to person.  The use of “coming down the pipe” (rather than “down the pike”), for example, is common on the internet because few people today know what a “pike” (short for “turnpike,” i.e., a toll road) is, and “pipe” makes a certain amount of sense.  Eggcorns (named by linguist Geoffrey Pullum in 2003 after the a similar substitution of “eggcorn” for “acorn”) actually seem to be increasing in number, possibly because people writing on the web are using words and phrases they’ve heard, but have never seen in print.  “Pot marks” (rather than “pock marks”), for example, is fairly common on the web, and makes so much sense to people who have never encountered “pock” or “pox” (after all, they do resemble little potholes in your skin), that “pot mark” may eventually become  the standard form.

So I’d say that the difference between a mondegreen and an eggcorn is that a mondegreen is a mishearing, specifically of a song lyric or poem, that is usually restricted to one person at a time and doesn’t spread far (if at all) before being corrected.  An “eggcorn” is a substitution of the familiar (e.g., “upmost”) for the unfamiliar (“utmost”) that is close enough in meaning to the original to spread widely.

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