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Most (if not all) of us have likely heard the phrase "dead as a door-nail."

However, I have noticed that a large portion (ok, all) of my American university students of the last 5 years erroneously think that this phrase is instead "dead as a doorknob."

I assume this might be due to the relatively infrequent use of the word/phrase door-nail in common speech, especially when compared to "doorknob" (e.g., see here, here, or here).

  • In fact, most of my students are unsure what a door-nail is (though many can guess).

I assume that if my students represent a broader trend, there is a chance that the idiom might actually permanently "change" from using doornail to doorknob in the not so distant future.

My question: Is there a word or phrase to describe an instance in which an idiom actually changes due to a change in common (mis)usage?

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  • Also, can anyone think of an example where this has already occurred?? Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 3:41
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    I don't know the term for the time of change, and would assume it's different for different expressions, although there may be categories. Linguistic drift? In the "door-nail" case, people are no longer familiar with dead door-nails, those that have been pounded down so they can't be removed and reused (and are thus dead)--probably because nails get too cheap to need to be reused.
    – Xanne
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 7:48
  • Permanent idiosyncratic substitution? (Or permanent eggcorn substitution)? Commented Dec 3, 2020 at 20:22

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A malapropism is

the usually unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase; especially : the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context. “Jesus healing those leopards” is an example of malapropism.

Perhaps the OP is searching for the malapropism of a word within an idiom, such as "for all intensive purposes" or "it's a mute point." (Should be "for all intents and purposes" and "it's a moot point.")

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    or it could be called the very similar eggcorn
    – Mitch
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 12:21
  • I actually intentionally use malopropisms all the time -- it's fun! I agree that my example is a malopropism, but my question's focus is not about people getting the word wrong, but rather, what we would call an instance in which an idiom shifts due to a malopropism. Thanks. Commented Mar 15, 2018 at 19:17
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    I liked "mañana from heaven"
    – J. Taylor
    Commented May 3, 2018 at 19:38
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    But "dead as a doorknob" is wrong only in that it's not the standard idiom, it's not ludicrously wrong or an inherently humorous mistake.
    – nnnnnn
    Commented Jun 17, 2020 at 8:33

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