Eggcorn, or something

Sighted on University Avenue in Palo Alto yesterday morning, this notice in the window of a Vietnamese restaurant:

(Photo — complete with some reflected street trees — by Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky.)

The announcement on the blackboard elsewhere in the window had the correct Dungeness in it.

The spelling is not an isolated occurrence. Here are three foodie items (of several hundred) I googled up this morning:

I’m a new york chowhound who lived in seattle about a decade ago. I remember dining at the dahlia lounge on dungeoness crab, the whole crab, steamed with a choice of infusions and sauce. It was incredibly memorable. I just checked out their menu on line–I’m returning for business in Feb–and this item was not on the menu. In fact, the prices seemed exorbitant and the cuisine looked much more fussy than I remember. Can someone recommend a place for dungeoness crab–not crab cakes–and a basic, cool seafood joint in general that isn’t as fussy and expensive as the dahlia lounge now appears to be? I would still like a place with a bar. (link)

Dungeoness Crab with Southwestern Chipotle Polenta
During my recent trip to San Francisco I stayed with my friends Ilse and Tommy in their home in the Haight-Ashbury district.  To thank them for their hospitality I decided to cook them dinner the night before I left, and since I was wandering around down in the Fisherman’s Wharf district earlier that day, the obvious choice for a special dinner was fresh dungeoness crab. (link)

Steamed Dungeoness Crab W/ Ginger & Green Onion
(1) 2 lb whole dungeoness crab … (link)

(On other sites, Dungeoness and Dungeness are mixed.)

So where does the spelling come from? Clearly, it starts as an ear spelling: the first two syllables of Dungeness are pronounced like the existing word dungeon. And that might be the end of it.

But sometimes ear spellings, with an existing spelling standing for unfamiliar material, are reinterpreted as actually containing the familiar item, so that what’s just an ear spelling for some people turns into an demi-eggcorn for others and a full-fledged eggcorn for still others. From a 2007 Language Log discussion of mine:

Pails. B-line [for bee-line] exemplifies a fairly common error type, involving a part X of an expression that can be parsed out but can’t be easily assigned a meaning: in [bi]-line, line is a recognizable element, but what is [bi]?  The name of the letter B?  The verb be?  The noun bee?  The proper name Bea?  Something unique to this expression (a “cran morph”)?

… If you can think of an item pronounced like X, or something close to it, that would seem to contribute some sense to the whole expression, then interpreting the expression as containing that item and spelling the expression accordingly produces an eggcorn (or, of course, gets you the right analysis and spelling).

On the other hand, if you’re stumped about the identity of X — that is, if the larger expression seems irretrievably idiomatic to you — you can just pick some existing item Y pronounced like X, ideally one of the right sort of category to fit where X occurs (so, for [bi]-line, a noun); you’ll probably be biased towards picking a frequent word, or one with a short spelling, or maybe you’ll pick one at random.  The result is a type of [demi-eggcorn] error I’m now calling a PAIL, after the (very common) spelling “beyond the pail”, where the baffling noun pronounced [pel] is taken to represent the everyday noun pail; yes, it doesn’t make sense, but then idioms are like that.

Now I don’t know how many of the people who spell the crab name DUNGEONESS think that the word dungeon is involved, either merely phonologically (in a puzzling idiom), or fully, in a lexical item whose meaning has something to do with dungeons (maybe they think of the crabs as being caught in dungeon-like traps; people are hungry for meaning — as well as tasty crabs — and they can be imaginative), but any one of three things could be going on, quite possibly different things for different people.

(I see that DUNGEONESS hasn’t made it to the eggcorn database or the eggcorn forum associated with it.)


3 Responses to “Eggcorn, or something”

  1. Damien Hall Says:

    There are also at least two genuine (ie not obviously punning) ghits for ‘dungeonesque crab’:

    (The search has 7 hits, but most of them seem to be on a site you need to join to see them.)

    This seems to me like a natural extension of this pail, given that there would usually be elision (or at least non-release) of the word-final /k/ in ‘dungeonesque’, triggered by the immediately following one. Also, as eggcorns and related phenomena should ideally have a fairly transparent semantic element, might ‘dungeonesque’ be triggered here by the fact that crabs often live in dark, confined, dungeonesque spaces?

    • arnold zwicky Says:


      I’ve wondered some if there are people who think of the -ess part of Dungeness/Dungeoness as the feminine suffix of actress, princess, etc., which could be turned into some kind of story that made sense of both parts of the expression: female crabs in/making dungeons, or what have you.

  2. Valentime’s Day « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Dungeoness crab for Dungeness crab (link) […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: