The problem may be that we have simply too many easily confusable words in the English language, and because they’re readily available, we often commit malapropisms.
So what’s a malaprop? An English playwright named Richard Brinsley Sheridan wrote “The Rivals,” featuring a Mrs. Malaprop, whose passion thrived in choosing the wrong word, sometimes a sound-alike. Many people use malaprops for emphasis or for a laugh. Others simply confuse these words with others.
My dictionary defines “malaprop” as “the use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with unintentionally amusing effect.” The example it provides is “dance the flamingo” in place of “flamenco.” In his 19th century play, Sheridan used a number of verbal slippages, courtesy of Mrs. Malaprop. That character, giving advice, suggested her friend “illiterate him quite from your memory.” That’s quite a novel use of “obliterate.” And she referred to another as being “headstrong as an allegory,” when we would have said “alligator.”
A freshman colleague at Highlands University way back in the fifties cracked us up as she chided one of us for failing to give her a ride to another building on campus. “You left me strangled at the pool,” Helen complained. The rest of us were positive she’d used that term either for emphasis or effect, but apparently she intended to use that choking term all along.
We couldn’t argue with that, and she persisted, even when she went to a pay phone to complain to Mom about what the rest of us had or hadn’t done.
While on this topic, I wondered whether malaprops are common in Spanish. It seems to me that with a bit of determination one could produce hosts of misuses in Spanish because that language contains so many more rhyming terms: viejita, bonita, hijita, Tonita, Lupita. The use of such rhyming words would help us reach, as Sheridan might say, “the pineapple of success.”
The urge to delve into this topic came from an email from our new city councilor, Barbara Perea Casey, who provided a number of quite credible slippages, gleaned from conversations with others. It was surprising, at least to her, that even people with doctorate degrees join the biggest offenders.
But in fairness, aren’t the highly educated people the ones who circulate in this verbal milieu? Perhaps hoping to sound well informed, people would hear a new slant to a word, adopt it — and then misuse it.
In her email, Casey included the intended word as well, but for this occasion, I’m allowing you, the reader, to surmise what the writer/speaker must have intended. And as usual, I invite you to provide the intended word — and even some of your own. And email them to the address at the end of this column.
This is what Perea said she heard during her tenure as an educator and elected official:
- From a person with a doctorate degree: “I would like to premise my speech with these thoughts…” Can some alert reader provide the word the doctorate holder obviously intended?
- From a department head at a local government division: “He is an intricate part of our department.”
- From a faculty member of one of our schools: “The food prices are exuberant.”
- From a school board member (Perea refuses to identify the district): “This young teacher is very naiveté.”
As our councilwoman must know, malaprops are more valuable than mere mispronunciations. When someone utters an unrecognizable word because he or she can’t think of the intended word, we simply assume that person has a limited vocabulary or a mini-mental block. But to introduce an actual word — no matter how ill-fitting it may be — that shows the speaker/writer must have met the word somewhere but didn’t learn where to fit it.
A column attributed to someone named Dr. Language Guy contains a piece called “Acyrologia,” which better illustrates some of the more common malaprops:
“An incorrect use of words — particulately replacing one word with another word that sounds similar but has a diffident meaning — possibly fuelled by a deep-seeded desire to sound more educated, witch results in an attempt to pawn off an incorrect word in place of a correct one.
“In academia, such flaunting of common social morays is seen as almost sorted and might result in the offender becoming a piranha in the Monday world; after all is set and done, such a miner era will often leave normal people unphased.
“This is just as well, sense people of that elk are unlikely to tow the line irregardless of any attempt to better educate them. A small percentage, however, suffer from severe acyrologiaphobia, and it is their upmost desire to see English used properly.
“Exposure may cause them symptoms that may resemble post-dramatic stress disorder and, eventually, descend into whole-scale outrage as they go star-craving mad.
“Eventually, they will succumb to the stings and arrows of such a barrage, and suffer a complete metal breakdown, leaving them curled up in a feeble position.”