5 Obscure Linguistic Terms and Phrases

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Have you ever committed genericide? Or been guilty of using a mondegreen? You almost certainly have, on both counts, possibly daily, even if you didn’t realize it at the time. As in many other professions, linguists have a number of extremely obscure terms they apply to everyday situations. Here are five bizarre linguistic terms that describe fairly common occurrences. Who knew there were words to describe these situations?


Linguists have coined a number of odd phrases and terms to describe common situations.

The Internet and World Wide Web have given rise to many new words; Booksworm

5. Mondegreen

You’ve almost certainly been guilty of using a mondegreen … perhaps many times each day, if you are really inept. A mondegreen is a phrase that is misinterpreted, resulting in something totally different, often with hilarious results. Most mondegreens result from the botching of song lyrics. The most classic example of all time is Jimi Hendrix’ song, Purple Haze, where he used the phrase, “’scuse me, while I kiss the sky,” which generations of listeners have misinterpreted as “’scuse me, while I kiss this guy.” The late 1960s seemed to be a ripe time for mondegreens; the seminal hard rock band Iron Butterfly released a 1968 song originally titled, In the Garden of Eden. After the lead singer had a few too many drinks and slurred the words during a rehearsal, the title morphed into In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. But literally any song with lyrics can be prone to a mondegreen, from the Star-Spangled Banner to the latest releases from today’s stars. In fact, one website, the aptly named KissThisGuy.com, features thousands of common mondegreens. We’ve all used a mondegreen, but it’s usually harmless fun. Volkswagen highlighted the mondegreen phenomenon in a 2012 Passat commercial that showed journeyman singers butchering the lyrics to Elton John’s classic 1972 song Rocket Man.


4. Back-Channel Signals

How many women out there have dealt with this scenario: Maybe you’re recapping your day, or talking about your upcoming wedding, and instead of a meaningful conversation, you get interjected grunts from your significant other: “Uh-huh,” “right,” “OK,” Yeah.” These are officially known by linguists as back-channel signals, and are simply a way for your significant other to signal he wants you to continue … although there is no back-channel signal for “Hurry up and finish before the ballgame starts.” Non-verbal cues such as smiles, frowns and shrugs can also be used as back-channel signals.


3. Genericide

This sounds like a tragic human-rights situation that the United Nations should be trying to resolve in some African civil war. It’s actually something you probably do several times each day without realizing it. If you’ve ever used the term Scotch tape to refer to tape that is not the Scotch brand; if you’ve ever used the term Band-Aid to refer to a bandage that is not a Band-Aid brand; or if you’ve ever told someone you’ll Google some information, you’ve committed genericide. It’s a seemingly harmless act on your part, but for officials with those companies, it’s no laughing matter. In many cases, these companies have spent untold millions developing and promoting their trademarked product. However, if the product becomes popular enough, many people start using the term as a noun to refer to all similar products. And so the trademark becomes greatly devalued. Among the trademarks that have been killed by genericide: nylon, zipper, escalator, aspirin and granola. Knowing that a term is trademarked probably won’t change your usage, but it is a serious issue in the media. Most news professionals who’ve spent a few years in the business have received at least one scary-looking “cease and desist” letter from a company pointing out that their product is trademarked, so unless you’re referring to the specific brand-name product, etc., etc.


2. Eggcorn

When you hear someone describe a loved one with “old-timers disease” instead of “Alzheimer’s disease,” that’s an eggcorn, an error or spelling of mispronunciation. Other common eggcorns: antidotal evidence (for anecdotal evidence); Cadillac converter (for catalytic converter); and rain supreme (for reign supreme). Weird fact: the word eggcorn is an eggcorn itself (for acorn).


1. Portmanteau

Merriam-Webster.com lists the first meaning for portmanteau as “a large suitcase.” It’s a safe bet you will never, ever hear an airline ticket agent ask if you want to check your portmanteau. The more interesting use of portmanteau is to describe a word created by the blending of two different words, with their respective sounds and meanings, into a new word. The example Merriam-Webster uses is smog, the noxious blend of smoke and fog. But portmanteaus are everywhere in modern life. Visit a fast food restaurant and you might get a spork to use for your meal. Turn on your computer and you might post something on your blog (a blending of the words web and log); watch your favorite sitcom (blending situation and comedy) or read the latest news on Brangelina (celebrity couple Brad Pitt + Angelina Jolie). Modern technology has spawned dozens of portmanteaus: avionics, nanotech, pixel, and the World Wide Web-inspired webinar, webisode and webcast. Now that you know the word portmanteau, you’ll marvel at all the examples you encounter in daily life.


One More: Palindrome

Finally, a word that some people have heard of, certainly the most recognizable word on this list. A palindrome is a word, phrase or even number that reads the same whether forward or backward. The ultimate palindrome, of course, is God, which reads backward as dog. One of the more famous palindromes in sentence forms is this little ditty: “A man, a plan, a canal — Panama,” which is good, but some enthusiasts with quite a bit of free time on their hands have expounded on that to create palindromes hundreds of words long. And there appear to be plenty of palindrome enthusiasts out there — there is even a magazine and website, Palindromist.org, devoted to all things palindrome.

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.