A Rain of Terror for Language Lovers

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As I was moving mulch with my wheelbarrel today, I was in intimate danger of breaking my foot… which would have made me ball my eyes out and curl up in the feeble position! If this happened, I hope a neighbor might be within earshout. Getting me to a doctor will be the crutch of the matter, and we will wait with baited breath for the x-ray results. When I see the medical bill, I might be shocked by the exuberant prices.

After picking him or herself up off the floor from laughing, the perspicacious Crozetian might realize that I meant while using my wheelbarrow I was in imminent danger, and if I had broken my foot I would have bawled by eyes out and curled up in the fetal position. If my neighbor were within earshot, they’d have realized that getting me to a doctor was the crux of the matter and we’d have waited with bated breath for the x-ray results, the cost of which might well have been exorbitant. And by the way, that headline should be Reign of Terror, referring to the era of bloodshed after the French Revolution.

These all-too-common word mix-ups are called malapropisms, which occur when we mistakenly use a word or phrase in place of a similar-sounding one, resulting in a nonsensical and unintentionally hilarious utterance. I was delighted to encounter a whole catalog of these verbal flubs when I attended “Word Salad or Word Solid?: Malapropisms and New Coinages” at the Virginia Festival of the Book. One of the presenters, Robert Alden Rubin, shared many hilarious examples from his 2015 book Going to Hell in a Hen Basket: an Illustrated Dictionary of Modern Malapropisms with a delighted crowd at City Hall.

I was introduced to this kind of amusing speech error at an early age, when my mother, an amateur actress, played Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals. Mrs. Malaprop, the pompous middle-aged guardian of a wealthy ingenue, frequently misspeaks by using words which don’t have the meaning she intends, but which sound similar to words that do—to great comic effect. Sheridan presumably chose her name in humorous reference to the word malapropos, an adjective or adverb meaning inappropriate, derived from the French phrase mal à propos (literally “poorly placed”). Some examples of her gaffes include “illiterate him quite from your memory” (instead of obliterate), “He is the very pineapple of politeness” (for pinnacle) and “she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile” (instead of alligator). You can see why the play had its audience in stitches. The fact that it was George Washington’s favorite play shows us that he had a sense of humor!

The synonymous term “Dogberryism” comes from the 1598 Shakespeare play Much Ado About Nothing, in which Constable Dogberry enforces the law but commits crimes against the language. For example, he tells Governor Leonato, “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons” (when he means apprehended two suspicious persons). Shakespeare used malapropisms in a number of his plays, almost invariably spoken by comic ill-educated lower class characters such as Mistress Quickly, the innkeeper associate of Falstaff.

The absurdity of these nonsensical substitutions can actually bring us great joy. They occur either when a person mishears an expression that they have not seen in print, so their imagination supplies a familiar word that seems to fit—or, as in the case of Mrs. Malaprop, the speaker reveals a lack of education that simply can’t grasp high-level diction. “Classical literary malapropisms of the sort committed by Dogberry and Mrs. Malaprop,” Rubin explains in his introduction, “are driven by distinctions between social classes. They are uttered by characters who aspire to impress their betters—but fail by comically garbling the language.”

The eggcorn—itself a mangled form of acorn—is a closely related verbal blunder, celebrated and cataloged in the online Eggcorn Database (eggcorns.lascribe.net). Examples of this subset of malapropisms include pass mustard for pass muster (you may say you’ve cleaned your room, but it does not yet pass mustard!); spread like wildflowers in place of spread like wildfire (the news spread like wildflowers), and for all intensive purposes in place of “for all intents and purposes (for all intensive purposes, she is the chair of this committee). Eggcorns differ slightly from malapropisms in that they make a silly sense; after all, an acorn might actually be thought of as egg-shaped. “Those who employ eggcorns aren’t pretending to be something they’re not….their language is that of pop culture, cliché,… secondhand phrases, and talk-radio blather,” which they try to echo but inadvertently get wrong. Eggcorns result in plausible expressions; malapropisms in absurd ones.

We all make these mistakes, although people who read a lot are less likely to do so. The key is to be able to laugh at ourselves and enjoy the creative silliness! When I met with my therapist, I battered my eyelashes and begged him to help me exercise my demons. Ever since my advocacy of the Oxford coma I’ve been called a “grammar scold” and a pre-Madonna. He diagnosed me with postdramatic stress disorder and told me to let it go and cease the day.* I took his advice with a grain assault. Let’s hope you can decipher these on your own!

*Correct forms: batted, exorcise, comma, prima donna, posttraumatic, seize, and grain of salt.

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