11 commonly misheard phrases that actually make sense

From "old-timers' disease" to "happy as a clown," these eggcorns are wrong yet seem so right

By Ellen Gutoskey

Published February 27, 2022 9:00PM (EST)

Clams in Malaysia (Ritzzuan Salim / EyeEm/Getty stock photos)
Clams in Malaysia (Ritzzuan Salim / EyeEm/Getty stock photos)

This story originally appeared on Mental Floss.

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When Malachy McCourt (brother of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt) was a kid, he misheard the line "Blessed art thou amongst women" from the Hail Mary prayer as "Blessed art thou, a monk swimming." Needless to say, the malapropism is completely nonsensical — and therefore hilarious.

But what about phrasal gaffes that make just as much, if not more, sense than their correct counterparts? Those are eggcorns, a term coined by linguist Geoff Pullum in 2003 as a nod to people's long-running habit of mistaking the word acorn for eggcorn. You could feasibly argue that acorns look like some sort of cross between an egg and a piece of corn.

Below are 11 other misconstrued expressions that fit the bill, from cold slaw to coming down the pipe.

1. Cold slaw // Coleslaw

The term coleslaw derives from the Dutch koolsla, a truncated version of kool-salade — in English, "cabbage salad." Since coleslaw, like most salads, is traditionally served cold, the eggcorn cold slaw is a little redundant. But it's not inaccurate (and considering the existence of hot slaw recipes, it may occasionally help to clarify). It's not new, either. The first known written mention of cold slaw is from 1794.

2. Extract revenge // Exact revenge

Back in the 16th century, exact was used as a verb that meant to forcefully require or demand something (payment, labor, etc.). By the 19th century, people had started using it to mean inflict — as in exact revenge. You don't often hear exact used as a verb at all these days. Extract, meaning to take out with force or effort, is much more common. And because revenge usually involves force and effort — the same type of painful process that you might associate with extracting a tooth — it's no surprise that some people think the phrase is extract revenge.

3. Happy as a clown // Happy as a clam

The phrase happy as a clam is generally believed to have begun as happy as a clam at high tide. At low tide, the mollusks are much more likely to get plucked from the sand by clam harvesters. But the shortened version of the phrase makes little sense without that context, and plenty of people have unwittingly (or wittingly) replaced clam with clown. After all, clowns are known for being jolly, even if their antics have a tendency to terrify us.

4. Last-stitch effort // Last-ditch effort

last-ditch effort or attempt is one final, no-holds-barred, possibly desperate push to accomplish (or prevent) something. It's a reference to the military tradition of defending your territory to the death, even when invaders have reached your very last trenches; the phrase die in the last ditch has been around since the early 18th century. Last-stitch effort, though technically incorrect, evokes a similar sense of eleventh-hour determination and futility: If there's only a single stitch holding your pant legs together, it's probably working quite hard to keep them from separating.

5. Old-timers' disease // Alzheimer's disease

Alzheimer's disease is named for Dr. Alois Alzheimer, the German pathologist credited with identifying the affliction in 1906. Alzheimer's surname is often misheard as old-timers' — an apt eggcorn, as most people diagnosed with the disease are older than 65. In fact, if you're diagnosed with it before you turn 65, it's considered younger-onset or early-onset Alzheimer's.

6. Deep-seeded // Deep-seated

Calling something "deep-seeded" implies that its seeds were planted far into the ground; so by the time it breaks the surface, it's likely established a vast network of strong roots that aren't easy to yank out. A deep-seeded fear or prejudice, for example, isn't easy to get rid of. But the proper phrase is deep-seated, meaning the subject's seat — as in its center or central power — is situated deep below the surface. This paints a much less literal picture than deep-seeded, which helps explain why deep-seeded-versus-deep-seated is one of many word usage mistakes that even smart people make.

7. Take for granite // Take for granted

If you take something for granted, you're failing to appreciate it because you assume it'll always be there, or failing to question it because you assume it's true. The phrase dates all the way back to the early 1600s. Though it's unclear when its eggcorn, take for granite, first appeared, it's pretty clear why some people think it makes sense. Granite is a relatively hard rock — sturdy enough to last at least a good century as a countertop (and much, much longer in nature). Taking something for granite, therefore, could mean you're assuming it'll be around for at least as long as you are.

8. Bad rep // Bad rap

When the word rap arrived on the scene in the 14th century, it described a physical blow — as in a rap across the knuckles, a later phrase that sheds light on how rap became associated with punishment (think rap sheet). But rap came to accommodate verbal blows, too. And if people are constantly talking negatively about you (especially unfairly), you're said to have a bad rap. You also probably have a bad reputation, so it's understandable how bad rap gets mistaken as bad rep.

9. Bold-faced lie // Bald-faced lie

The bald-faced in bald-faced lie is a variant of barefaced. In other words, the lie is as apparent and uncovered as a clean-shaven face. But bold-faced has existed since the 1600s —Shakespeare used it in Henry VI — and if you're telling an obvious lie, chances are good that you're doing it with a pretty bold face. It's also possible that people these days assume the bold face in question is a typeface: A lie printed in bold would be especially obvious.

10. Coming down the pipe // Coming down the pike

Something that's coming down the pike is going to arrive (or happen) soon, just like something that's literally coming down the turnpike — i.e. a central road or expressway, which is what pike in the phrase refers to — is going to arrive soon. But isn't something that's coming down the pipe going to arrive soon, too? Probably so, making down the pipe an effective, albeit incorrect, expression. As Merriam-Webster points out, the pipe-or-pike confusion is likely compounded by the existence of the phrase in the pipeline, which also alludes to things happening soon.

11. Wet your appetite // Whet your appetite

You can't wet something abstract, and an appetite falls into that category. The verb you want is whet, meaning sharpen. That said, wetting your appetite could insinuate that you're salivating at the sight, smell, or thought of food, which would probably whet your appetite.

Ellen Gutoskey

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