The linguists at Language Log have coined the word eggcorn, which refers to a particular kind of lapsus. An eggcorn is created by speakers (or writers) who, when searching for a word the meaning and pronunciation of which they know but the etymology and the spelling of which they have forgotten or never learnt, come up with a form they contrieve based on recongizable lexical items that provide the meaning they are after. Eggcorn itself is an eggcorn: Someone, somewhere didn’t quite know how to spell acorn and thought that an egg-shaped seed would most likely be called an egg corn.

Identical eggcorns can (and for the known ones, turn out to) be forged many times over independently. Some may appear so sensible that people learn them from each other. But an eggcorn isn’t quite universally accepted (yet), which makes it different from folk etymology.

The Language Log linguists like eggcorns; they have fallen for their irresistible charm. Not everyone agrees, though. Mark Liberman points out that a recent article in the Guardian prefers the term “word crime”. I briefly mentioned the same article in a previous post written in French that talked about how the publication of a new edition of a well-known dictionary was heralded in the French paper Libération and in the Guardian, respectively: In the former, with a sweet interview with a lexicographer who has interesting strories to tell about the evolution of meanings and dictionary entries; in the latter, with a whingeing diatribe about the illiterate populace.

What’s the point of all this? Well, yesterday I was reading Lawrence Lessing’s Variety op-ed piece about copyright issues involved in the making and screening of Outfoxed, a documentrary by Robert Greenwald about political bias at Rupert Murdoch’s US TV network Fox News, when unexpectedly a true, live eggcorn (my first!) emerged from the underbrush. This is what I read:

If news networks are not as they say they are, then journalists and critics should be able to show it. If Greenwald’s argument is wrong, then let another filmmaker contradict it. Or if ABC is just as bad, then let ABC be outed, too.

Yet that thought no doubt terrifies not just Fox, but every one of the (handful of) networks that now control our airways — which is why Fox’s first response to the Greenwald film was to warn other networks not to take it seriously, or risk “opening (themselves) to having (their) copyrighted material taken out of context for partisan reasons.”

Great stuff. I totally agree with his stance. (And it sounds like a splendid film. I hope it comes to Europe as well; in the meantime I’m watching the excellent clips available from the Outfoxed web site.) But still, airways?

I carefully caught the little beast, took it home, and followed Language Log’s procedure for looking up its pedigree on google. It wasn’t easy to avoid false positives; airways come up quite legitimately in the context of aviation, medicine and mining. I finally chose the following google searches:

  • “control [the|our] airways” +media: 534 hits for the original, 36 for the eggcorn (after weeding out the remaining references to airlines and asthma by hand); ratio: 14.8
  • “over [the|our] airways”: 40300 original, 2230 eggcorn (including maybe 5% false positives); ratio: 18.1.

At first glance surprisingly, searching for “over [the|our] airways” on google news finds 95 occurences of the original for 10 eggcorns, a ratio of only 9.5 in favour of the accepted term. Could journalists be more confused than the general English-speaking population?

No doubt we are in the presence of a true eggcorn, produced by a mind that casts about for lexical items that signify what the utterer means to say. Airways isn’t so bad. Originally, broadcasting meant the radio after all, ie the transmission of voice, and voices propagage through air; furthermore, our voice actually issues from human airways. In an odd way, the following example makes sense:

  • Talk of the City is a zippy, immediately accessible show which […] offers us […] a retinue of BBC officials sensitive to government policy, anxious to tow the party line, who insist on approving every last word before it is voiced over the airways. (link) [note the magnificent double eggcorn!]

But there is more to it. The process of reanalysing the item that signifies “that which enables radio- and TV-signal-like information to pass from a sender to a receiver” and is pronounced, approximately, [’eə.weɪz], draws on the metaphors that, for the utterer, conceptualize electronic communication. There’s maybe even a whiff of Lakoff’s communication-as-conduit in the air. Okay, I’m stretching things a bit. Lakoff talks about framing human communication that happens by way of language in terms of information that passes in pre-packaged form from A to B. Any such metaphor — this is one of Lakoff’s points — limits understanding of what communication is. So I’m probably reasoning by association and have no good justification for bringing up Lakoff at all. Still, I’m not in the business of suggesting a communicaton-is-broadcasting metaphor. What got me thinking is that a great many of the google hits seem to indicate that those who write airways believe that TV signals travel along something like pipes. And this shapes the way they understand the words they use.

There’s an error (let’s call it a metaphorical accident) right at the outset of the concept: Unlike the older telephone and telegraph signals, and unlike the more recent internet and cable TV data, the electromagnetic waves of broadcasting do not travel along conduits. Heck, that’s the entire point of Maxwell’s equations (a set of four equations that tell us how electric and magnetic phenomena arise and behave): Maxwell isn’t famous for postulating (let alone discovering) the eponymous equations; all he did was adding one term to one of them. But he was the first (that we know of) to understand what electromagnetic waves are and that they don’t require a medium at all. They fill the entire available space with the speed of light (it doesn’t get any faster); they get weaker along the way, all right, but they are practically everywhere. It is possible to force them along a fixed path, but it takes extra effort.

This, however, isn’t the picture that emerges from the writing of those who substitue airways for airwaves. I imagine they are influenced by the internet, where every data packet has to hop from router to router to arrive at its destination. And much to my surprise, I found their metaphorical system rather coherent. Let’s look at the evidence.

Information, for eggcorn users, behaves like parcels, or people, for that matter. It is sent somewhere, comes in, goes out. It’s not surprising it should need some sort of way or road to accomplish this:

  • the FCC and EIC […] regulate what goes out over the airways (link)
  • Computers were linked to specially adapted AMPS telephones and the data could be sent over the airways. (link)

It can also adopt a particular mode of transport, some form of air travel, say:

  • Countless summer nights his voice fluttered over the airways into my bedroom, luring me like a siren’s song and lulling me to sleep. (link)
  • Gingrich, John Kasich, and Orrin Hatch sent up trial balloons repeatedly over the airways (link)

Sometimes data is like a fluid that advances through fixed passages, like oil in a pipeline, water in a network of canals, or, for that matter, muck in a sewer:

  • The world sat breathless as the first images poured out over the airways (link)
  • I am surprised you didn’t pick up on this one aspect, as it so closely relates to your continued rhetoric about “doing the right thing”, having purpose, integrity ” etc., ad nauseum, that you spew forth over the airways to your listeners on a daily basis. (link)
  • While calmly absorbing the myriad of comments flowing over the airways I was suddenly taken aback by one of the most ill-considered utterances yet to have emerged. (link)
  • The Tennessee Waltz was replaced by the jitterbug, Perry Como, Louis Armstron, Peggy Lee, and the Andrews Sisters, spilled over the airways. (link)

Or it is cut up into little bits and pieces that crop up like billboards along a motorway:

  • I’m sure they’d be happy to have their names and pictures plastered all over the airways. (link)

Compelling, isn’t it? Doesn’t it seem kind of logical to say “airways”? Doesn’t it almost sound right? Airwaves would’t be half as good in many of these cases! Maybe the data-runs-along-conduits metaphor appeals in particular to tech journalists. This might explain why they employ the eggcorn instead of the original in significant numbers.


9 comment(s) for 'Eggcorns in the air'

  1. (Comment, 2004-07-16 02:04 )
    #1Root

    Where and how do you learn all this stuff :)

  2. (Comment, 2004-07-17 21:44 )

    The confusions happens in another context.
    A Google search for |asthma airwaves|
    finds many examples of “airwaves” mistakenly
    used for “airways” (i.e. bronchial tubes).

  3. (Comment, 2004-07-17 21:56 )

    confusions -> confusion!

    Afterthought: I wonder if Wrigley’s Airwaves
    mentholated chewing gum (claimed to ease breathing) has
    any relation to the latter misnomer?

  4. (Comment, 2004-07-18 04:35 )
    #4chris

    Oh, yes, I must have seen the TV ad dozens of times but didn’t think of Wrigley’s Airwaves at all.

    Interesting comments. So what do we call that now? A reciprocal eggcorn — sounds ugly. A couple of twin eggcorns?

  5. (Comment, 2004-07-18 09:52 )

    Double-yolked eggcorn? I first ran into it on the BBC News website,
    in a piece on childhood obesity. Before I
    alerted them and they corrected it, it had a
    sentence about a doctor who warned that
    “children were choking because fat was blocking
    their airwaves”. It appears elsewhere on TV health
    pages - see the headline here -
    To add a further complication to the mix, there
    are a number of lung care initiatives that
    deliberately use the cross-over of meanings: i.e.
    Airwaves
    is communication over the airwaves about airways.

  6. (Comment, 2004-08-11 15:29 )
    #6etaoin

    seems to me, the eggcorn starts because someone mis-hears another speaker, and then, when using the phrase, they substitute that which they thought they heard, or their best approximation. eggcorns are aural seeds, that grow into words…

  7. (Comment, 2004-08-12 17:34 )
    #7chris

    Aural seeds. I like that very much.

  8. (Comment, 2004-10-13 01:58 )
    #8 — amy

    y dont u have on hur how they live or were they live and what they eat?

  9. (Comment, 2005-06-16 01:33 )
    #9 — Brett Reynolds

    I’m coming to this 8 months later, but…

    I don’t think ‘airwaves’, meaning the tubes we breathe through, is an eggcorn at all. As Chris so nicely explains, eggcorns are lexically motivated; they make sense.

    Where is the waviness in the tubes to our lungs? I think this is simply a mistake.