When Malachy McCourt (brother of Pulitzer Prize–winning author Frank McCourt) was a kid, he misheard the line “Blessed art thou amongst women” from the Hail Mary prayer as “Blessed art thou, a monk swimming.” Needless to say, the malapropism is completely nonsensical—and therefore hilarious.
But what about phrasal gaffes that make just as much, if not more, sense than their correct counterparts? Those are eggcorns, a term coined by linguist Geoff Pullum in 2003 as a nod to people’s long-running habit of mistaking the word acorn for eggcorn. You could feasibly argue that acorns look like some sort of cross between an egg and a kernel of corn.
Below are 15 other misconstrued expressions that fit the bill, from cold slaw to rebel-rouser.
1. The Eggcorn: Cold Slaw // The Actual Term: Coleslaw
The term coleslaw derives from the Dutch koolsla, a truncated version of kool-salade—in English, “cabbage salad.” Since coleslaw, like most salads, is traditionally served cold, the eggcorn cold slaw is a little redundant. But it’s not inaccurate (and considering the existence of hot slaw recipes, it may occasionally help to clarify). It’s not new, either. The first known written mention of cold slaw is from 1794.
2. The Eggcorn: Extract Revenge // The Actual Term: Exact Revenge
Back in the 16th century, exact was used as a verb that meant to forcefully require or demand something (payment, labor, etc.). By the 19th century, people had started using it to mean “inflict”—as in exact revenge. You don’t often hear exact used as a verb at all these days. Extract, meaning to take out with force or effort, is much more common. And because revenge usually involves force and effort—the same type of painful process that you might associate with extracting a tooth—it’s no surprise that some people think the phrase is extract revenge.
3. The Eggcorn: Happy as a Clown // The Actual Term: Happy as a Clam
The phrase happy as a clam is generally believed to have begun as happy as a clam at high tide. At low tide, the mollusks are much more likely to get plucked from the sand by clam harvesters. But the shortened version of the phrase makes little sense without that context, and plenty of people have unwittingly (or wittingly) replaced clam with clown. After all, clowns are known for being jolly, even if their antics have a tendency to terrify us.
4. The Eggcorn: Last-Stitch Effort // The Actual Term: Last-Ditch Effort
A last-ditch effort or attempt is one final, no-holds-barred, possibly desperate push to accomplish (or prevent) something. It’s a reference to the military tradition of defending your territory to the death, even when invaders have reached your very last trenches; the phrase die in the last ditch has been around since the early 18th century. Last-stitch effort, though technically incorrect, evokes a similar sense of 11th-hour determination and futility: If there’s only a single stitch holding your pant legs together, it’s probably working quite hard to keep them from separating.
5. The Eggcorn: Old-Timers’ Disease // The Actual Term: Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease is named for Dr. Alois Alzheimer, the German psychiatrist and neuropathologist credited with identifying the affliction in 1906. Alzheimer’s surname is often misheard as old-timers’—an apt eggcorn, as most people diagnosed with the disease are older than 65. In fact, if you’re diagnosed with it before you turn 65, it’s considered younger-onset or early-onset Alzheimer’s.
6. The Eggcorn: Deep-Seeded // The Actual Term: Deep-Seated
Calling something “deep-seeded” implies that its seeds were planted far into the ground; so by the time it breaks the surface, it’s likely established a vast network of strong roots that aren’t easy to yank out. A deep-seeded fear or prejudice, for example, isn’t easy to get rid of. But the proper phrase is deep-seated, meaning the subject’s seat—as in its center or central power—is situated deep below the surface. This paints a much less literal picture than deep-seeded, which helps explain why deep-seeded-versus-deep-seated is one of many word usage mistakes that even smart people make.
7. The Eggcorn: Take for Granite // The Actual Term: Take for Granted
If you take something for granted, you’re failing to appreciate it because you assume it’ll always be there, or failing to question it because you assume it’s true. The phrase dates all the way back to the early 1600s. Though it’s unclear when its eggcorn, take for granite, first appeared, it’s pretty clear why some people think it makes sense. Granite is a relatively hard rock—sturdy enough to last at least a good century as a countertop (and much, much longer in nature). Taking something for granite, therefore, could mean you’re assuming it’ll be around for at least as long as you are.
8. The Eggcorn: Bad Rep // The Actual Term: Bad Rap
When the word rap arrived on the scene in the 14th century, it described a physical blow—as in a rap across the knuckles, a later phrase that sheds light on how rap became associated with punishment and then a prison sentence (think rap sheet). But rap came to accommodate verbal blows, too. And if people are constantly talking negatively about you (especially unfairly), you’re said to have a bad rap. You also probably have a bad reputation, so it’s understandable how bad rap gets mistaken as bad rep.
9. The Eggcorn: Bold-Faced Lie // The Actual Term: Bald-Faced Lie
The bald-faced in bald-faced lie is a variant of barefaced. In other words, the lie is as apparent and uncovered as a clean-shaven and maskless face. But bold-faced has existed since the 1600s—Shakespeare used it in Henry VI, Part 1—and if you’re telling an obvious lie, chances are good that you’re doing it with a pretty bold face. It’s also possible that people these days assume the bold face in question is a typeface: A lie printed in bold would be especially obvious.
10. The Eggcorn: Coming Down the Pipe // The Actual Term: Coming Down the Pike
Something that’s coming down the pike is going to arrive (or happen) soon, just like something that’s literally coming down the turnpike—i.e. a central road or expressway, which is what pike in the phrase refers to—is going to arrive soon. But isn’t something that’s coming down the pipe going to arrive soon, too? Probably so, making down the pipe an effective, albeit technically incorrect, expression. As Merriam-Webster points out, the pipe-or-pike confusion is likely compounded by the existence of the phrase in the pipeline, which also alludes to things happening soon.
11. The Eggcorn: Wet Your Appetite // The Actual Term: Whet Your Appetite
You can’t wet something abstract, and an appetite falls into that category. The verb you want is whet, meaning sharpen. That said, wetting your appetite could insinuate that you’re salivating at the sight, smell, or thought of food, which would probably whet your appetite.
12. The Eggcorn: Pass Mustard // The Actual Term: Pass Muster
As far back as the early 1400s, muster in a military context referred to the gathering of soldiers for inspection. If you passed muster (or passed the muster), that meant you passed the inspection. Eventually, people started using pass muster to describe non-military situations in which standards were met.
Pass mustard is technically incorrect, but you could make the case that it’s a cogent metaphor in its own right. If you pass the mustard to someone who asked for it, you might gain approval as a dependable, capable person who can complete a task (all the more so if it’s a rowdy, crowded dinner table and you manage to pass the mustard without knocking anything over).
As Merriam-Webster points out, the mustard-versus-muster issue probably didn’t arise just because the words sound so similar: Cut the mustard is a phrase that basically means the same thing as pass muster. It’s unclear where it came from, but mustard is an old slang term for “something excellent,” so it could have evolved out of that sense.
13. The Eggcorn: On Tenderhooks // The Actual Term: On Tenterhooks
In the late medieval period (and beyond), you’d stretch your freshly milled cloth over a wooden frame called a “tenter” so it wouldn’t shrink as it dried. Tenterhooks were the hooks or bent nails that held the cloth in place. A piece of cloth on tenterhooks is in a state of tension, which explains why we say we’re “on tenterhooks” when we’re experiencing tense anticipation or suspense.
But since people these days are generally more familiar with the word tender than tenter, tenterhooks sometimes gets mistaken for tenderhooks, which isn’t a word at all. If it were, though, it might describe hooks on which to hang tender cuts of meat—and you’d probably feel pretty tense if you were stuck on one of those.
14. The Eggcorn: Hunger Pains // The Actual Term: Hunger Pangs
The cramps you get when you’re ravenous are called “hunger pangs,” not “hunger pains.” But the word pang, per the OED, describes “a sudden sharp spasm of pain which grips the body or part of it,” so it’s hard to even argue that hunger pains is wrong. That said, if you want to be as specific as possible about your complaint—and avoid the possibility of getting corrected—go with hunger pangs.
15. The Eggcorn: Rebel-Rouser // The Actual Term: Rabble-Rouser
Rabble refers to a mob, and rouse means “to incite to action” or “to bring to a state of excitement or heightened emotion,” in the OED’s words. A rabble-rouser, then, is someone who gets a mob all riled up and ready to fight for a (usually political) cause—and since they’re essentially rousing rebels, it could also make sense to call them a “rebel-rouser.”
The eggcorn is the name of a 1958 hit song by Duane Eddy, who told Guitar Player in 2020 that it was originally titled “Rabble Rouser,” but producer Lee Hazelwood changed it. “He was from Texas and probably thought ‘Rebel-’Rouser’ made more sense,” Eddy said. “It was a great title anyway.”
A version of this story ran in 2022; it has been updated for 2023.
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