“When all is set and done.” “A new leash on life.” “Damp squid.” These are the moments that cause linguists, grammarians and language snobs to get very huffy. These accidental mistakes in English occasionally crop up in newspapers and magazines, and make you wonder what exactly sub-editors do. No newspaper is exempt; even the venerable New York Times printed the following last week: “the Congress we’re about to get will be its [predecessor’s] spit and image: familiar faces, timeworn histrionics, unending paralysis.” Spit and image? Spitting image, surely, is what the writer at the Grey Lady intended. These mistakes even have a name: eggcorns. In 2003, Mark Liberman asked for a name to describe a phenomenon represented by a woman writing “egg corns” instead of “acorns”. The linguists just decided to go with eggcorn, after the canonical example. Liberman points out that eggcorns differ from both “folk etymologies” and malapropisms. They’re not folk etymologies, he argues, “because this is the usage of one person rather than an entire speech community” – though very common ones could certainly become part of the language. They’re not malapropisms either, “because ‘egg corn’ and ‘acorn’ are really homonyms (at least in casual pronunciation), while pairs like ‘allegory’ for ‘alligator,’ ‘oracular’ for ‘vernacular’ and ‘fortuitous’ for ‘fortunate’ are merely similar in sound (and may also share some aspects of spelling and morphemic content)”. No, eggcorns sound almost identical to the intended form, and, crucially, are plausible as alternative analyses of them.
You can see an array of eggcorns at the brilliant and hilarious The Eggcorn Database, which monitors misuses of the language. The sources of each example are carefully recorded. “There is no deal in place but when all is set and done, something is expected to happen after the Academy Awards” noted Deadline Hollywood. “But it could give the neocons a new leash on life,” wrote Andrew Sullivan. Forbes.com let slip the following sentence: “some of the individuals signaled out for retention may not be the right ones.” My favorite has to be the commenter on nytimes.com who argued that “the National Organisation for Women and others have nothing to offer the average Jane and in consequence, have allowed Sarah Palin and her elk to define women’s issues.” I never thought that Palin was discussing politics with a giant deer. Now I cannot imagine anything else.