Helping with the washing up after a barbecue at the weekend, a relation absent-mindedly asked me where she should put the “pretzel”. After a moment of bafflement I realised she meant “pestle” – the thing you use, with the mortar, to grind spices.
It reminded me of a friend gleefully telling me about one of her pals saying she’d bought some new “pedalos” (small, human-powered boats) to wear – she meant pedal-pushers (calf-length trousers), of course.
With these lovely examples in mind, I was delighted to see the next day a thread on LinkedIn about malapropisms – the use of incorrect words in place of words with a similar sound.
Malapropisms (from the French mal à propos – inappropriate) get their name from a character in the Richard Brinsley Sheridan play The Rivals, published in 1775. Much of the comedy in the play comes from Mrs Malaprop’s “words ingeniously misapplied without being mispronounced”, as another character put it.
This kind of misuse of words is also known as Dogberryism, from Officer Dogberry, a character in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
Mrs Malaprop’s utterings include:
“…promise to forget this fellow – to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.”
“He is the very pine-apple of politeness!”
“I hope you will represent her to the captain as an object not altogether illegible.”
“…she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile.”
“I am sorry to say, Sir Anthony, that my affluence over my niece is very small.”
“Why, murder’s the matter! slaughter’s the matter! Killing’s the matter! – but he can tell you the perpendiculars.”
“…if ever you betray what you are entrusted with… you forfeit my malevolence for ever…”
“Sure, if I reprehend any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!”
[apprehend, vernacular, arrangement, epithets]
Wikipedia, citing the Oxford English Dictionary, says the first recorded use of “malapropos” in English is from 1630, and the first person known to have used the word “malaprop” in the sense of “a speech error” is Lord Byron in 1814.
Some charming real-life malapropisms
These are from the LinkedIn discussion. Thanks to those who unintentionally gave me inspiration and fodder for my blog, even if they did go completely off-topic after a while and start discussing lewd limericks.
“NO TRESPASSING! Prosecutors will be violated”
[Violators will be prosecuted]
Seen on a sign
Waitress overheard in Glasgow restaurant
“Home ravished by fire”
From a newspaper headline
“For a floorless complexion”
Sign in window of a beauty product shop in Worcester, England
“I know this will fall on deft ears”
Email from LinkedIn member’s husband
“He sat down on his posterity”
Child in classroom
“Country cottage for sale with duel entrance”
Job advert – possibly for an engineer with high moral standards
“If a traveler does not declare… they may be executed by the police for carrying such materials.”
“Parking is reserved for perspective clients only”
Sign in car park
“Could you make me my horrible tea”
LinkedIn member’s boss
Old lady explaining what she had for lunch
“The turban just came in.”
Heard in supermarket fish department
“The Hospital is afflicted with the University Medical Center.”
Local newscaster in US
If you’re interested in how such linguistic errors happen, there’s some very highbrow stuff in this Stanford University paper, which explains it. I haven’t got time to read it all, and I wouldn’t understand it if I did, so I’ll say only that the Stanford bloke, who’s clearly got a big forehead and knows what he’s talking about, calls malapropisms “errors in lexical selection… that arise in the creation of a mental lexicon”. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Or, according to www.changingminds.org, “a neural cause of Malapropism occurs where memory access is based on sound-alike and a mental error occurs when we try to recall the right word”.
Interestingly, though, according to a couple of sources I looked at in a half-assed sort of manner while cooking my dinner, some malapropisms are deliberate – spoken to break the ice or get a laugh. That will no doubt explain why they were a favourite conversational device of America’s favourite idiot, George Bush the younger.
Great George W Bush malapropisms
These are from politicalhumor.com, and there are lots more Bushisms where these came from.
“We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile.”
“Anyone engaging in illegal financial transactions will be caught and persecuted.”
“And they have no disregard for human life.”
“I am surprised, frankly, at the amount of distrust that exists in this town. And I’m sorry it’s the case, and I’ll work hard to try to elevate it.”
It’s not just Bush, of course: there are lots of other people whose deficiencies in memory access lead to errors in lexical selection, as the real-life examples cited below show.
Yet more malapropisms!
These are courtesy of fun-with-words.com, which has lots of interesting stuff about the use of words.
“Your ambition – is that right – is to abseil across the English channel?”
British TV presenter Cilla Black
“It is beyond my apprehension.”
American baseball manager Danny Ozark
“This is unparalyzed in the state’s history.”
Gib Lewis, Texas Speaker of the House
“She’s really tough; she’s remorseful.”
English athlete David Moorcroft
“The police are not here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder.”
Richard Daley, former Chicago mayor
“Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.”
Dan Quayle, former US vice-president
Pretzel and alligator images by Bill Longshaw at freedigitalphotos.net
Mortar and pestle, and grapefruit, by Grant Cochrane at freedigitalphotos.net