Free reign and other eggcorns

What’s an eggcorn?

It’s a new word, introduced in the early 2000’s and referring to the replacement of a rare/archaic word in a phrase by a common and similar-sounding word that may have nothing to do with the original meaning of the phrase. It was coined by a guy who claimed that he’d seen acorn written as eggcorn. I’ve never actually seen that (and I kind of doubt it: it’s not like acorn is a rare word unfamiliar to most readers…is it?)

I think our language is impoverished every time someone replaces a meaningful metaphor with meaningless jargon. Besides, it irritates the heck out of me. So today I’m just going to rant about the eggcorns created by writers who apparently had no idea of the context and original meaning of the phrases they butchered. If I went on to list stupid/illiterate word substitutions this post would be way too long. Maybe next week.

Horses and riding

By far the most frequent offender is the substitution of reign for rein, creating phrases like free reign and reign in. I suppose this comes from somebody who has the vague notion that rein in and free rein have something to do with exerting or abdicating control, but who has never actually used reins and can’t figure out what they have to do with it, so… well, reign has something to do with control, doesn’t it? Plug that word in and to hell with the fact that the new phrase doesn’t mean anything.  I foam at the mouth when people substitute reign for rein. You might say my annoyance is unbridled.

Moving on:

Curve your appetite. No, no, no. It’s curb, as in, controlling a horse’s movements with a curb bit. Sheesh, my people didn’t even use curb bits but I still know what the word means.

Straddled with. I saw this only once, but it was weird enough to stop me and throw me out of the story. Was it a typo, or was the writer never saddled with the notion of a saddle?

Nautical and military

I probably should have started with this, because it’s the largest category. Look, I are not a naval or military historian, but at least I’ve been in a sailboat, read the Hornblower novels and researched the Blitz. That shallow pool of knowledge is enough to annoy me at the following eggcorns:

Pass mustard. Evidently the concept of a muster at which you get experiences like an on-the-spot equipment check (which you may fail) is foreign to the writers who perpetrate this eggcorn. You’d think they would at least pause to consider that a discussion of condiments is out of place in the context of whatever they’re trying to convey.

Tow the line. It’s toe the line, folks, from a way of lining up soldiers or sailors for that muster. Writers may be confused by towline, which means a rope or whatever used to tow a vessel. You don’t tow lines, though; you tow other things with them.

Shot over the bough. Fellow Hornblower fans will wince over this one. A shot over the bows is aimed at the other ship, just high enough that you don’t actually hit it. It’s a way of signaling to the folks on the other ship that you’re serious… and that you’re in a position to do serious damage with the next shot.

Way anchor. As far as I know, the meaning of weigh as “lift” survives only in weigh anchor and related phrases (Anchors Aweigh!), but that’s no reason for replacing it with way and creating a meaningless phrase.

Change tact/take a different tact/take a similar tact. The word should be tack. As in, a change of direction. Change tack actually means something; change tact doesn’t. Meaning takes another hit.

Taking flack. Flak is literally anti-aircraft fire and metaphorically criticism, as summarized in the aphorism, “If you’re taking flak, you know you’re over the target.” A flack is a PR person, probably just as annoying but less likely to be fatal. I’m going to be nice and not tell you about the German term that got abbreviated to “flak.” Suffice it to say that they started out with seven syllables and ended up with this one, and aren’t we all grateful for that?

Don’t know much about history

Beyond the pail. I suppose the writer thinks that pale is an archaic spelling for pail. Nope. It’s an archaic word for a fence made of palings. You couldn’t make much of a fence with pails! Beyond the pale means outside a boundary. The Irish may dislike the usage, since the English generally called the English-controlled parts of Ireland the Pale and considered the rest of Ireland to be uncivilized – literally, beyond the Pale. But at least it means something, whereas beyond the pail makes no sense whatsoever.

Straight-laced, straightjacket. It’s strait-laced, meaning tightly laced, and straitjacket. The meaning has to do with confinement, narrow spaces, etc, not with straight lines. You know, like the Bering Strait, which I expect to see rendered as Bering Straight any day now. I guess nobody reads the Bible any more, or they’d know: Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life.

The dye is cast. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon and said “Alea iacta est,” he wasn’t saying that he had dyed the Rubicon red – or any other color. Die is the singular of dice. He was saying that he’d made his throw and now he’d find out if he won. I guess nobody shoots craps any more either?

Motte/moat. Possibly forgivable, since they both come from the same Old French word. Trouble is, the meaning and spelling changed over time. A motte and bailey castle is built on raised ground (the motte) defended by an enclosing wall (the bailey.) Later the motte came to refer to the dry ring of excavated ground created in building the raised ground, and still later to mean a water-filled ditch surrounding the bailey – but by that time it was spelled moat. To be fair, I’ve seen this only once, but the usage had the unfortunate effect of making me giggle every time I hear the name of a perfectly nice woman who wrote historical romances in the eighties; she put her heroine in a motte-and-bailey castle, which was fine and perfectly in period… until the lady mounted to the top of the keep, overbalanced and fell into the motte.

If you’re going to make your readers giggle, do it on purpose and not out of ignorance, okay?

(Image credit:



  1. ‘Eggcorn’ vs ‘acorn’ might be a derp? Like trying to spell ‘cute’ with a q, which I have actually seen. (The person there knew they were spelling it wrong and just blanked on the spelling.)

  2. fell into the motte

    Chuckle Chuckle

    It’d be safer to fall into a moat than to fall into a motte. 😈

  3. Strange – the comments link wasn’t there a couple of minutes ago. The annoying thing is that you can’t see who wrote the post until you open up comments. So a belated thank you, Margaret, especially for “tow/toe the line.” That one drives me nuts.

    There is one writer (or maybe just his influence on his collaborators) who only has his characters smirk. I’ve never seen a smile, or a grin, or even a simper in his books. If I ever do happen to run into him, I swear that the first thing I’m going to say to him is “Wipe that smirk off your writing before I slap it off.”

  4. I believe a large part of the problem with people using the wrong word in the above examples is that they don’t read much. Instead, they HEAR the phrase spoken, and not knowing the origin of the phrase, they will use the wrong word. Some of the problem today can also be from “auto-spell” etc on phones and computers. MOST of the auto-spell programs seem to have been programmed by people who also haven’t read much, and so they will use the wrong word in a phrase.

    And speaking of using phrases such as the above. Whenever I have a discussion with an anti-gunner, I like to pepper my speech with various gun phrases like “lock, stock, and barrel,” “don’t go off half-cocked,” and “flash in the pan.” I do eventually reveal to that other person that those phrases are all related to firearms. I’m still waiting for one of their heads to explode!


    1. Oh, beautiful! I didn’t even start on the gun-related eggcorns… but I bet there are a lot of them.

    2. I warn aspiring writers about using metaphors that do not occur in their world. Such as having archers fire arrows before firearms. (Also having low-hanging fruit or windfalls without fruit trees, or strong suits before bridge, which requires playing cards, which requires cheap paper.)

      1. Good point. That creates a whole new class of things to watch out for, doesn’t it? Not eggcorns exactly… and “anachronistic phrase” doesn’t sound right. What shall we call these?

    1. LOL! that’s better’n mine: I’ve actually seen a fence made of 5 gallon buckets (presumably filled with dirt; held together with rebar). So whatever was on the other side was indeed ‘beyond the pails’ 😀

    1. That one really annoys me, though I muse about an angler fish. Hard to get the “breath” part there.

      1. I seem to remember hearing/reading about types of dragons/lizards/snakes that have a scented breath that lures prey into their mouths.

        Don’t know if its real folklore or something made up to match “baited breath”. 😉

        1. I have been known to tell people I am waiting patiently, but “With a worm on my tongue.” After they look at me confuzzled, I explain “With bated breath.”

  5. The dye is cast.

    I bet a lot of those folks no longer know the “die” is the singular of “dice”; thus, “dye”.

  6. A closely related phenomenon is that of the mondegreen: an unintentionally funny mishearing of the words to a song.

    As we’re getting close to Christmas, two of my favorite mondegreens are approaching relevance:
    — “Mark and Harold the Angels sing, Glory to the newborn King!”
    — “Round John Virgin, Mother and Child”

    1. Some of them come from singers who actually *do* sing those words, and others who mush-mouth it so badly they might as well have.

      Plus, people who are only familiar with “modern” music don’t *expect* the lyrics to make any sense, so they don’t question what they heard, or think they heard.

    2. I grew up assuming that Harktheherald was a kind of angel, perhaps something akin to an archangel.

    3. I have always heard “Secret Agent Man” as “Secret *Asian* Man.” That’s the one mondegreen I knew right off the bat I was mishearing. Most of the time I have to search for song lyrics.

      This time of year I hear the line “shake a hand, shake a hand” in Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” as “trigger hand, trigger hand.” I swear some artists who cover that song really are going with “trigger hand.” Lazy and mush-mouthed indeed.

      1. That is actually correct! The lyrics go:

        “ Deck us all with Boston Charlie,
        Walla Walla, Wash., an’ Kalamazoo!
        Nora’s freezin’ on the trolley,
        Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!

        Don’t we know archaic barrel
        Lullaby Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou?
        Trolley Molly don’t love Harold,
        Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!”

    4. Did you know that the Son of God loves pure light? So much so that he has radiant beams of it coming out of his face.

      And I actually don’t know what is the correct word when you are ruining someone else’s parade. Are you precipitating on it or lording it over the true ruler?

      1. The scriptural idea of “radiant” or “rayed” originates from the Hebrew Root compromised of the consonants Quoph Resh Nun. The word also refers to a horn or point or ridge.
        The upward sweeping corners of the altar were thus the “horns” or “rays” of the altar.The destructive aspect of God’s wrath is described as a
        spiked gauntlet (With points emanating from it) Not a glowing blue cgi Powerfist.
        Hence Michael-Angelo’s perhaps vexatious depiction of a horned Moses.
        Which reminds me, giving the devil horns is like giving him a “radiant” Halo. Even in precursors to the Hebrew and in other cultures Horns were associated with power and kingship. (Crowns have horns , or rays traditionally). The origins of the word “EL” for God are particularly interesting in this respect.

  7. Beyond the pail. I suppose the writer thinks that pale is an archaic spelling for pail. Nope. It’s an archaic word for a fence made of palings.

    This one I didn’t know. I knew it was “pale” in this case, but I had never thought about why: if someone had pressed the point with me, I would have guessed that it was something that made your grandmother go pale, and then you went beyond that…

  8. There’s a wonderful children’s book entitled “The King who Rained,” showing a king, raining on his lands. It is full of homophone/homonym humor.

    1. One of my favorite visual pun books– “A Chocolate Moose for Dinner.”

      Looking for the book, I find it’s in the same series:

      AS my memory goes, Chocolate Moose was the best.

  9. I taught Engrish in Bogota, Colombia for a coupla years. The poor cursed people that did not imbibe the language with their mother’s milk make such errors magnitudes of times more frequently. I was often asked asked why our language was filled with such boobytraps like there/their/they’re and whale/wail and nicklel/nickle. I had a standard reply. “Ingles es El Diablo.” “English is the Devil”

    1. I actually pronounce your and you’re differently from each other, and they’re is pronounced differently from their and there (which tend to have the same pronunciation, but different emphasis, which is how I distinguish them).

      But yeah…English is kind of the Devil. One fun description I saw fairly recently is that English isn’t a single language, it is three languages standing on each other’s shoulders, wearing a trench coat.

      1. An apt analogy, but I personally would postulate more than three languages. Those subtle pronunciation differences you use work well for people like me and you. But they are waaaay too subtle,if not impossible, for ESL learners to discern.

        1. Yeah, probably, but how often do you see more than three “people” stacked on top of each other trying to pull off that trench coat trick? 😉

          As for the pronunciation differences…honestly I think they are probably way too subtle for most native English speakers to notice. I am basing this on the fact that few of the people I talk to regularly seem to differentiate the word pronunciations when speaking. So I am in no way surprised that they would be extremely difficult/impossible for ESL learners to discern. After all, they aren’t even there all the time!

        1. For me, “your” is roughly pronounced yore, and “you’re” is more like ewer (and isn’t it absolutely delightful that I was able to give two completely different words as pronunciation guides?)

          1. Much the way we (are supposed to) differentiate them when we sing. We are also supposed to make “our” have two distinct sounds, “ow-er.” Herr Dr. Director mentions this often, suggesting that we continue lapsing into West Texas rather than Proper English.

    2. I learned the other day that there is a third: Wale. One “wales on” something. A “wale” is the mark left behind on a person from doing so on them. A synonym of “welt”, as far as I can tell.

      My favorite poem of all time is Dearest Creature in Creation. It must be read out loud. It is very rare for anyone to get it all right the first time. In some ways, it’s a bit unfair (who knows who Terpsichore is these days? [I found out by looking it up after stumbling on it in that poem]). On the other hand, it is strict with its iams and the rhyming is very good, so one can guess pretty well.

      1. who knows who Terpsichore is these days?

        Isn’t she the muse of dance? And in answer to your question…possibly a surprising number of young folk, if they are the types to read Rick Riordan’s Trials of Apollo….

      2. About the onliest thing I can imagine to compare in the Confusing Quotient is street names in New Orleans. They have a Terpsichore and a Melpomene, along with among others a Tchoupitoulas. (Chop-ih-too-luss. It gives natives no end of pleasure listening to tourists sprain their tongues trying to pronounce them. Especially since the “native” way of pronouncing them is simplified, ignoring letters and syllables that are inconvenient. Thx Sizer, for the poem. I enjoyed it, and never before heard of it.

      1. To this day, I abbreviate congratulations as “Cong Rats.” This was how M$ Word 1.0 autocorrected “Congrats.” A bug (IMNSHO) deserving of Eternal Life.

        1. Have you seen this, which I saw on Usenet years ago:
          > line and dance sinuously back and forth, back and forth,
          >> as the band plays to a hot-blooded rhythm that disturbs
          >> the senses>
          >> Conga rats.

  10. I’ve actually seen ‘rein’ misused for ‘reign’ once. In a professionally published hardcover. It was far from the last example of bad editing either. That’s what I reviewed: ” Lie and lay were mixed up as were rein and reign. Example: “kings eldest son being too young to rein,..” Sorry, that’s for horses. Reign is for rulers And lines like ‘laying out .. bricks for his feet to trod upon..” should be tread; “logic will dictate she slayed the king..” past tense of slay is slew or ‘had slain’. Or “her slippers trounced lightly upon brightly woven rugs” That ‘trounced’ just hurts,”

    Publisher name belongs to Abrams which used to be a quality company.

  11. I can certainly see how these matters might irritate you. I personally stumbled over “I think our language is impoverished every time someone replaces a meaningful metaphor with….”
    perhaps instead “is further impoverished “ might work better. The word is an adjective, not a verb. I see this odd broadening or fudging of a words meaning or grammatical status increasingly among journalists and writers for newspapers. It irks me.This constraints with the not inconsiderable excitements I feel when I read an instruction leaflet for my latest example of Chinese electronic gadgetry. Yes I know the translation often needs to be heavily interpreted, to make any real sense, but that just serves an indicator that I’ve probably just acquired for very little money the latest beta test, of the ,’next big thing’.

    As I explained “impoverished” is a adjective, and it’s not the ‘hacking
    ‘ of the language I object to , I’m up for progress, but the fact that it looks very much like the author just doesn’t realise. All this is presented in the context of a somewhat loquacious rant about the vibrant and quirky consequences of working and communicating with living tongues…
    I haven’t checked my own comment for errors btw. I cba tbh. Which reminds me: What does the letter “a” mean in cba again?

      1. Yup. You’re right of course and it does appear to be used as a participle here. Mea Culpa . Nonetheless it still sounds wrong. I think I know why.
        The choice of linking verb here “is” matches the adjectival usage, rather than the Pluperfect verb form suggested by the context.
        Let me provide two examples that might clarify this:
        ‘The washing machine is broken” .
        Here ‘broken’ is clearly an adjective used to modify the noun Washing machine.
        “I am Tired”
        Again an example of a past participle used as a adjective with the use the linking verb ‘to be’
        If the auxiliary verb ‘to have’ is used with a past participle it generally forms the Plusperfect instead.

        “Morning has broken”
        “The Day has dawned”
        “The race has begun”

        In these cases a substitution sounds very odd of course:
        “The race is begun”, is clearly a bit off.

        However “I have tired, of this nonsense” is clearly viable.
        “I am tired” also works.
        The former represents the use of the past participle as a verb in the pluperfect, whilst the latter represents its use as an adjective.

        In the article under discussion the context implies that the meaning associated with the verb form is intended.
        Every time….. our language becomes poorer.

        I like the example of the washing machine though ( forgive the dubious vernacular embellishments)
        “Every time go to use it, the washing machine is broken”

        “Every time you let the kids use it, it has broken”.

        Hah! I think I nailed it. Thanks for helping me . I love a good puzzle.

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