Dispatches | September 14, 2007

In the class I took this summer, History of the English Language, one of our assignments was to visit the “eggcorns” database as a means to understanding how languages, specifically English, may change. The premise of the site is simple. It’s a collection of incorrect spellings that achieve a higher metaphorical purpose than their “correct” form. For example, “eggcorn” was a student’s misspelling of “acorn” (to the student an acorn looked like a tiny egg). The new word makes sense because it suggests a more vivid picture than the original acorn. (A few of my favorites: pus jewel for pustule, all intensive purposes for all intents and purposes, and stalk-still for stock-still.)

This website piqued my interest as an English-teacher-to-be. It’s an intriguing way to teach students how to think about and use metaphor. And rather than urging me to admonish students for poor spelling, it challenges me as a teacher to imagine what the student is thinking when he or she misspells a word. Although it may be dangerous to have students thinking they don’t have to spell anything correctly, it’d be worth it to have them thinking critically about how to use metaphor.

While all this may seem more linguistic than literary, I stumbled through quite a few eggcorns about a month after our class ended, when I was reading The Poisonwood Bible  (I think I counted about twenty). Kingsolver smartly incorporated the eggcorns when narrating from the point of view of the dimwitted sister Rachel. The eggcorns help to characterize Rachel as slow; however, when she uses them, the reader is aware of the unintended shrewdness of her statements. This foreshadows Rachel’s eventual fall into success, despite her intellectual lack.

I have yet to see any more eggcorns “in the wild,” as they say on the website, but I’m keeping my eyes open and would be thrilled to see an author use them as Kingsolver did.