Spoonerisms, Mondegreens And Other Common Language Errors

Is that thing you just said an eggcorn or a mondegreen?
September 11, 2020
Spoonerisms, Mondegreens And Other Common Language Errors

Everyone makes occasional mistakes when they’re talking. Even if you’ve spoken English since birth, it won’t stop you from tripping over a phrase once in a while. And though these slip-ups might seem random, there are certain mistakes that tend to happen over and over. So much so, that they even have names, like spoonerisms (errors that happen when you’re talking) and mondegreens (errors that happen when you’re listening). We decided to look at these categories of linguistic lapses to see what they are and why they happen. Here are the backstories behind our mouths’ many missteps. 

Spoonerisms

What are they? This is when two sounds in a phrase are switched. While spoonerisms are usually a mistake, they’re sometimes used to create a fun play on words, like in Shel Silverstein’s Runny Babbit.

Example: Saying “mand bembers” instead of “band members.”

Where does the name come from? Spoonerisms are named after William Archibald Spooner, who served as a don at the University of Oxford. He was a widely beloved man with entertaining quirks. One such quirk is that he would often mix up letters, which is why his name became forever attached to this phenomenon. You can find many quotes attributed to him on the internet — most famously calling for a toast to the “queer old dean” instead of the “dear old queen” — but most of the time those are inaccurate. While it’s documented that Spooner did have funny slip-ups, many of the quotes allegedly “by” him are manufactured in the same way that many quotes are erroneously attributed to Winston Churchill or Mark Twain.

Why do they happen? The way your brain turns ideas into words is complicated, and there’s plenty of research still to be done on the whole process. It seems, though, that spoonerisms occur because of a problem in your “speech plan.” A speech plan is basically the plan that your brain makes to move your mouth to emit sounds that convey what you want to say. When you say “chocolate” for example, your brain has to tell your mouth how to move to go from the “ch” sound to the “k” sound to the “l” sound to the “t” sound, with vowels in between. This process is generally seamless — you probably have never had to think about where to put your tongue and when — but sometimes your brain gets mixed up. And these mix-ups are often because you have two possible speech plans and your brain isn’t sure which to use, so it splits the difference. Once in a while, this will result in a spoonerism.

Mondegreens

What are they? This is when you hear something incorrectly, but it ends up making sense to you anyway. Often, they happen with music or poetry.

Example: One famous example is in Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Rain,” where the line is “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky,” but many people have misheard it as “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy.”

Where does the name come from? The name “mondegreen” originated in a 1954 Harper’s essay, in which author Sylvia Wright mentions mishearing a line in the poem “The Bonnie Earl O’ Moray.” The line actually said “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray / And laid him on the green,” but she had heard “And Lady Mondegreen.” In that reading, it would be a double murder, instead of a murder and a funeral.

Why do they happen? There’s some debate about what causes mondegreens. Most psychologists agree that they often happen in music because it’s a one-sided medium, there’s often very little context, and singers and poets use words and phrases that not everyone will be familiar with. The disagreement is how the brain comes up with the incorrect hearing. Steven Connor, a professor of English at the University of Cambridge, has argued that if your brain can’t make sense of a lyric, it will simply fill in what would make the most sense. On the other side of it, psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker has said often the mondegreens make less sense than the original phrase. Therefore, he says mondegreens are not necessarily what makes the most sense, but instead is what the brain most wants to hear. Either way, they have become a funny cultural phenomenon.

Eggcorns

What are they? Similar to mondegreens, eggcorns occur when a common phrase is changed to another similar- or identical-sounding phrase.

Example: Saying “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes.” 

Where does the name come from? The word was coined by linguist Geoffrey Pullum in 2003. It is itself an eggcorn of the word “acorn.” 

Why do they happen? While malapropisms are word replacements that render a statement entirely nonsensical, an eggcorn tends to make at least some sense. The phrase “deep-seated,” for example, is often replaced by “deep-seeded.” While it’s not technically correct, it’s pronounced exactly the same way by Americans and the meaning of the original term — that something is particularly deeply placed — is still there. Eggcorns also sometimes happen because a phrase is antiquated, and so the speaker is unfamiliar with the original term. An example of this is people calling something the “death nail” instead of the more proper “death knell,” because who says “knell” anymore?

Freudian Slips

What are they? These are speech errors that are caused by someone’s unconscious mind slipping up to the surface. Today, the term has been generalized by some people to refer to any speech error.

Example: Freudian slips don’t have many general examples because they are supposed to be connected to a single speaker’s innermost thoughts. For an example from pop culture, there is an episode of Friends where Ross is getting married to Emma. During his vows, however, he says he would “take thee Rachel,” which is the name of his ex-girlfriend. The implication in the episode is that he still had deep feelings for Rachel, and thus the error ruined the wedding.

Where does the name come from? Sigmund Freud, the famed 20th-century psychologist from Vienna, Austria, is renowned for connecting actions to deep, unacknowledged desires. This phrase comes from his work in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, a book that has an exhaustive list of errors that he argues carry great significance.

Why do they happen? While certainly a giant in the field of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud is largely discredited today. Cognitive psychologists tend to believe that, for the most part, there are more innocent explanations for the slips of the tongue (some of which are mentioned in the other sections of this article). People are more likely to make mistakes when they’re tired or distracted, meaning sometimes the brain, like any other part of the body, simply erred. But there is something tempting about the idea that someone’s true feelings could be given away by a misplaced utterance.

If Freudian slips are a real phenomenon, though, they are very difficult to test. How does one research the innermost thoughts of someone? Well, in 1979, they decided to try with a strange study. Researchers collected a number of “heterosexual males,” who were split up into three groups. The first group, the control, was met by a middle-aged professor and told to repeat word pairs that were designed to encourage spoonerisms, like saying “mack bud” instead of “back mud.” The second group did the same thing but instead of a middle-aged professor, they were met by a female lab assistant wearing “a very short skirt and sort of a translucent blouse.” The second group was more likely to make sexual spoonerisms (“fast passion” instead of “past fashion”), but they made the same number of mistakes overall. The third group was back with the middle-aged professor, but they were told that there was a chance of receiving an electric shock at some point during the study, though that didn’t actually happen. The electrified third group, like the seduced second group, made more mistakes related to their stimulus (“cursed wattage” instead of “worst cottage”). The results would seem to match the theory that people’s mistakes are influenced by what’s on their mind.

There is some evidence, then, that if something is particularly weighing on you, it could cause some sort of mistake in your speech. But the vast majority of mistakes likely don’t have such a strong subtext. When you ask someone for “pashed motato,” it’s not because there’s something in your subconscious that switched around the letters. Even without the psychological underpinnings, though, verbal slips can be a source of plenty of entertainment.

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Author Headshot
Thomas Moore Devlin
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.
Thomas grew up in suburban Massachusetts, and moved to New York City for college. He studied English literature and linguistics at New York University, but spent most of his time in college working for the student paper. Because of this, he has really hard opinions about AP Style. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and getting angry about things on Twitter. He's spent a lot of time trying to learn Spanish, and has learned a little German.

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