English may not be the hardest language to learn, but it has subtleties that can throw off even the most well-read native English speaker. One of the main difficulties for people learning the language is the diverse slang used by English speakers around the world, whether that be in Ireland, Australia, Scotland, or Nigeria, to name a few. Another thing that makes English difficult is eggcorns.
What is an Eggcorn?
An eggcorn, a term that comes from the mispronunciation of acorn, is defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a word or phrase that sounds like and is mistakenly used in a seemingly logical or plausible way for another word or phrase either on its own or as part of a set expression.”
Eggcorns are a common blunder, but that doesn’t make it any less embarrassing to be called on them. Below is a list of popular eggcorns you should know about and avoid at all costs.
All the definitions listed below are taken from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Collins Dictionary.
1. Saying to “nip something in the butt” instead of “nip something in the bud”
“Butt” is the short for buttocks; “bud” is the immature growth on the stem of a plant that will develop into a flower. There’s no reason why anything would need to be nipped in anybody’s butt, unless that person is undergoing colorectal surgery.
Nipping something in the bud: “To stop (something) immediately so that it does not become a worse problem.”
2. Saying “to pass mustard” instead of “to pass muster”
“Mustard” is a spicy condiment; “muster” is an inspection or examination. You pass the mustard at a dinner table, and your work passes muster if it meets certain standards.
To pass muster: “To gain approval or acceptance.”
3. Saying “soaping wet” instead of “soaking wet”
“Soaping” is the action of applying soap; “soaking” is a verb that means that something becomes saturated with fluid after being immersed. You can be wet while rubbing soap on something or someone, but that’s a totally different situation.
Soaking wet: “Very wet.”
4. Saying “to all intensive purposes” instead of “to all intents and purposes”
“Intensive” is an adjective that expresses high physical or emotional strength; “intent” is a planned action and is the synonym of purpose. While using “intensive” in this popular phrase works in some contexts, it won’t convey the original definition of the phrase and could potentially lead to misunderstandings.
To all intents and purposes: “In almost every respect.” It is also used more abstractly to mean “essentially” or “in effect.”
5. Saying a “mute point” instead of a “moot point”
“Mute” is an adjective that indicates a lack of speech; “moot” refers to a claim or logic that is questionable and uncertain. Confusing both terms can make sense if we consider that a “mute point” is an argument that is so irrelevant that it’s akin to its speaker having said nothing at all.
Moot point: “A question about which there is debate or doubt.”
6. Saying “biting your time” instead of “biding your time”
“Biting” is to grip with your teeth; “biding” is to wait for something. While both verbs sound very similar, interchanging both terms in this phrase does not make a lot of sense unless you grind your teeth with impatience while waiting for something to happen.
Biding your time: “Wait for a good opportunity before doing something.”
7. Saying “dull as dishwater” instead of “dull as ditch water”
Both dishwater and ditchwater are dull and therefore could work in this phrase, but ditch water seems a lot grimier, adding a layer of unpleasantness to whoever or whatever you’re referring to.
Dull as ditchwater: “Extremely dull; boring.”
8. Saying an “old wise tale” instead of an “old wives’ tale”
While the phrase “old wives’ tale” expresses doubt, “old wise tale” suggests seriousness, experience, and even truth. Therefore, they are not to be confused if the meaning of the phrase is to remain the same.
Old wives’ tale: “An often traditional belief that is not based on fact”
9. Saying “wheelbarrel” instead of “wheelbarrow”
While the body of a wheelbarrow is kind of shaped like half a barrel, using the term “wheelbarrel” is incorrect.
Wheelbarrow: “A small, usually single-wheeled vehicle that is used for carrying small loads and is fitted with handles at the rear by which it can be pushed and guided.”
10. Saying “nerve wrecking” instead of “nerve-racking”
This is an eggcorn that is easy to forgive. “Wreck” means to damage or destroy, and it’s very easy these days to find a situation that damages your nervous system. Unfortunately for this stellar logic, the correct phrase is “nerve-racking,” with “racking” meaning “to cause to suffer torture, pain, anguish, or ruin.” The meanings of “wreck” and “rack” overlap, but only one is correct in this phrase.
Nerve-racking: “A nerve-racking situation or experience makes you feel very tense and worried.”
11. Saying “illicit a response” instead of “elicit a response”
“Illicit” is an adjective that’s synonymous with “illegal.” “Elicit” is the action to make someone act by saying or doing something.
To elicit a response: “To do or say something which makes other people respond or react.”
12. Saying “expresso” instead of “espresso”
Espressos are traditionally served standing up at the café’s counter and drunk quickly in a couple of gulps, and that may be the reason why people keep thinking they are called “expressos.” That, or because the beverage sends one extremely quickly to the bathroom. No matter the reason, the correct term is “espresso.”
Espresso: “Coffee brewed by forcing hot water through finely ground darkly roasted coffee beans.”
13. Saying “damp squid” instead of “damp squib”
Like most eggcorns, this often confused British expression is the result of confusing two similar-sounding words: “squid,” a type of ocean-living mollusk, and “quib,” a small firecracker. By confusing the two words, the meaning of the idioms changes. A squid is meant to be damp, a squib certainly isn’t.
Damp squib: “Something that is disappointing because it is not as exciting or effective as expected.”
14. Saying “on tender hooks” instead of “on tenterhooks”
“Tenterhooks” are a type of hooked nails, whereas “tender” is an adjective that conveys an idea of softness, delicacy, and sensitivity. The meaning of the this common British idiom changes dramatically when the terms are confused.
On tenterhooks: “In a state of uneasiness, strain, or suspense.”