Eggcorns and Engrams


I spent a recent down day watching TV and looking stuff up on the Internet. The television viewing consisted of three hours of classic Star Trek, amongst other things. (William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, 1966-1969—that Star Trek, aka Star Trek: The Original Series.) I’ll get back to Star Trek in a bit; but first, the Internet.

My web searches revolved around the premise of cognitive dissonance. That thing Google defines as “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.”

Speaking for myself, when faced with challenges to my view of things, my first instinct is to retreat. And use that space to gather facts, examine stuff, get to a better understanding of what formed my worldview in the first place. I’m definitely a “Shoot later, ask questions first” kind of person. Resistance? I’ll see that obstacle and raise it with my own powerful brand of diffidence.

Thus, the term “cognitive diffidence” popped up in my head. I thought it was quite clever, and thought it might make a good topic for a post; right here, as a matter of fact. Yet, I quickly discovered I was not the first person to come up with it. The top search result was a post from another WordPresser, put up five years ago. And not too much further down, a post to the “Eggcorn Forum” another four years prior to that.

What, pray tell, is an eggcorn? I had found my rabbit hole.

So, an eggcorn “is an idiosyncratic substitution of a word or phrase for a word or words that sound similar or identical in the speaker’s dialect.” It originated with a linguistics professor back in 2003. And “cognitive diffidence” is considered an eggcorn.

While I’m no linguistics expert, I’m definitely interested in words. And coming from the South, I’m certainly aware of dialects (and how my own can be perceived). I’m facing a brand new bout of cognitive dissonance over the fact that I’ve never heard of eggcorns before now.

NPR even posted a list of top 100 eggcorns last year. Here are a few I hear fairly often:

  • Agreeance
  • Biting my time
  • Buck naked (apparently, it’s supposed to be butt naked. I never knew that.)
  • Expresso
  • Ice tea

I could go on about eggcorns, but I won’t. Now onto a word I heard as I caught the tail end (tale end?) of Star Trek episode “The Ultimate Computer.” That’s the one with the brilliant Dr. Richard Daystrom (played by William Marshall) and his M-5 computer. The M-5 goes all Skynet on some Federation ships, and Captain Kirk has to convince the M-5 that it should face the penalty for taking human lives. The M-5 shuts itself down, effectively committing suicide.

That’s the episode. But the word was “engram.” Dr. Daystrom programmed human engrams—his own—into the M-5 computer. Daystrom was on the verge of a breakdown, thus the M-5 picked up Daystrom’s instability.

Here’s the thing about engrams: while I don’t know much about Scientology, I know that engrams seem to come up a lot in that practice. Enough so that I thought the concept might have originated with L. Ron Hubbard. But the Internet tells me that is not so.

The term engram was coined in 1904 by a German biologist, Richard Semon, who did a bunch of research into the neurological origins of memory. He posited that engrams were a type of “memory trace” imprinted onto the nervous system.

On a sad side note, Richard Semon committed suicide, wrapped in a German flag, shortly after the end of World War I. He was depressed by the death of his wife; and it was also alleged that he was depressed by Germany’s role and defeat in the war.

Before I engender reader ennui over eggcorns and engrams, I’ll come to a conclusion. While I wish I could come up with some brilliant theme to tie them together, I cannot. So I’ll conclude with cognitive dissonance. Because it seems like it might have contributed to the ultimate demise of both the M-5 computer, and Richard Semon. In the latter case, we’re led to believe he couldn’t reconcile his nation’s part in such a horrific global conflict. He couldn’t erase his engrams.

My diffidence might save me, yet.

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