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The twang of the new

Butt naked, not buck.

In last month's column on eggcorns -- those verbal misunderstandings that produce erroneous yet logical new terms, like momento, step foot, or for all intensive purposes -- The Word invited readers to send more examples. From the bushel of responses, here are a few of your favorite goofs.

From Beth Polen's list came a couple I also enjoy: butt naked (for buck naked) and the vivid nip in the butt, a revision both livelier and less lethal than its original, nip in the bud.

Bruce McCarthy sent another familiar friend: Instead of fleshing out a story or proposal -- putting meat on its bones -- some people want to "flush out the details." McCarthy thinks it may be a hunting metaphor -- a dog flushing its prey -- but I lean toward a plumbing sense; most of us are more familiar with slow drains, after all, than with partridges and pointers.

An anonymous contributor offered an eggcorn new to me, but not to the world: "a twangy taste" for tangy. This one, it turns out, has a delicious history: Tang (a sharp flavor, originally) and twang (the sound of a bowstring) have been swapping places since at least 1611, when a quote in the Oxford English Dictionary mentions a " the mouth." We're not the first, it seems, to feel that the oral tang and the aural twang are similar sensations.

Some of the funniest slips, though, are not true eggcorns, by the standards of the linguists who named them. (You can find details and join the discussion at the online Eggcorn Database, or search Language Log for a series of eggcorn explanations.) An eggcorn isn't just any old goof; like a mondegreen -- a misheard song lyric -- it must make (some) sense to its user.

Kayte Wattam, for instance, has an entertaining take on oblitherated -- "it conjures visions of pompous, Foghorn Leghorn types who conquer by the sheer force of their blathering pique." But unless the people who use the word are influenced by blither or blather -- and looking at the Google hits, that seems unlikely -- it's not an eggcorn, merely a misheard obliterate.

Likewise Paul Spagnoli's favorite, "from Ralph Kiner, one-time slugger and later broadcaster for the N.Y. Mets, who once referred to Ryne Duren, a relief pitcher who wore glasses, as 'the bespeckled righthander.'" This bespeckled is still with us today, even in edited prose, but there's no sign that its users have speckles in mind. They've just dropped a syllable, apparently, like those who write odiferous for odoriferous.

The much-mentioned heart-rendering, too, seems a dubious eggcorn. As linguist Mark Liberman has noted, the people who use it aren't thinking of the cooking term (nor could one render much fat from that muscular organ). As for heart-wrenching, even if it originated as an alternative to the poetic heart-rending, you can't really quarrel with it; wrench has had that figurative sense for centuries.

But there are plenty of possible eggcorns sprouting all around us, so far untouched by the traditionalists' weed-whackers.

Elena Brunn offers one from her college students, self-steam for self-esteem. "A bit of narcissistic hot air," she calls it, but there's a more generous interpretation; maybe those students are thinking of getting motivated to take on steep challenges, like the Little Engine that Could.

Margaret O'Hara reports that in Seabrook, N.H., there's a place to "pawn anything," called the Hawk Shop. "Oh, those Noon Glanders," she exclaims. But it's not just New Englanders who pronounce hawk and hock alike, and at least the two words are both related to commerce, if not to one another.

Some people grow their own eggcorns, as one of my editors did: When his wife told him she was "not long for this world" (as in "dead tired"), he heard "not long for the swirl" -- a coinage that should resonate with anyone exhausted by the swirl of a busy schedule.

A few contributors declined to join the fun. Eggcorn, shmeggcorn, said John Bonavia -- they're errors. And "since they rely on aural similarity, they're created by people who never read, of whom we have far too many. Hrmph. Snort."

But eggcorns are nothing new. Many old ones are now standard English, reshaped by our collective misunderstanding, or "folk etymology." Bridegroom was Old English bridguma, "bride-man," but when guma fell out of use, the more familiar groom ("lad") took its place. Buttonhole began life as buttonhold, a loop to secure the button, and then evolved to reflect sartorial innovation.

And when Michael Quinion of World Wide Words reports that people in Borneo -- being more familiar with marine life than with fireworks -- "often change damp squib [a fizzled firecracker, or a failure] into damp squid," how can you resist the eggcorn's charm? I'm with the folks at Language Log, for whom eggcorns are "tiny little poems, a symptom of human intelligence and creativity."

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