Modern Day Malapropisms
During the early years of space exploration, NASA scientist Wernher von Braun gave many speeches on the wonders and promises of rocketry and space flight. After one of his talks, von Braun found himself clinking cocktail glasses with an adoring woman from the audience.
“Dr. von Braun,” the woman gushed, “I just loved your speech, and I found it of absolutely infinitesimal value!”
“Well then,” von Braun gulped, “I guess I’ll have to publish it posthumously.”
“Oh yes!” the woman came right back. “And the sooner the better!”
Long-time Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley was known for beheading the English language with such mutilations as “I resent your insinuendoes” and “We shall reach greater and greater platitudes of achievement.” Mr. Daley’s creative word choices must have been contagious because another Chicago politician was heard to shout, “I don’t want to cast asparagus at my opponent!”
When people misuse words in an illiterate but humorous manner, we call the result a malapropism (French, mal a propos—”not appropriate”). The term springs from the name of a character in Richard Sheridan’s comedy The Rivals, written in 1775, and has come to stand for the kind of linguistic maladroitness exemplified in the statements above.
Mrs. Malaprop was an “old weather-beaten she-dragon” who took special pride in her use of the King’s English: “Sure, if I reprehend anything in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue and a nice derangement of epitaphs!” She meant, of course, that if she comprehended anything, it was the use of her oral tongue and the nice arrangement of epithets.
In Sheridan’s play, Mrs. Malaprop urges her niece, who is “as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile,” to “illiterate” a gentleman from her memory and to acquire a knowledge of the “contagious” countries.
It has been more than 200 years since Mrs. Malaprop first strode the stage, but time has not dulled our malpropensity for uttering malapropisms. As evidence of this insertion—oops! I mean assertion—I present my favorite modern examples of big word abusage:
- I am privileged to speak at this millstone in the history of this college.
- Medieval cathedrals were supported by flying buttocks.
- Beware of sexy women like those lymphomaniacs.
- They had to give one of the players artificial insemination.
- The mountain is named for the Rev. Starr King, who was an invertebrate climber and author of the book, “The White Hills.”
- We can’t be a pancreas to the whole world’s problems.
- He’s a wealthy typhoon.
- No phonographic pictures allowed.
- He died interstate.
- His 90-year-old grandmother still has all her facilities.
- They were singing without accompaniment. You know—Acapulco.
- The first thing they do when a baby is born is to cuts its biblical cord.
- His acting ran the gauntlet from A to Z.
- My daughter has a congenial hip disease.
- The referee penalized the team for unnecessary roughage.
- The Archbishop is interested in the economical movement.
- If Cartier had scored and we had gone on to win the game, all these questions today would have been irreverent.
- You’re in for a shrewd awakening.
- They’ve decided to raise my benefits, and they’re making it radioactive!
- I have been a prostrate patient for many years.
- I wish someone would make a decision around here. I’m tired of just hanging around in libido.
- The defendant pleaded exterminating circumstances.
- I ate in a restaurant today where the food was abdominal.
- It’s a fragment of your imagination.
- Certainly the pleasures of youth are great, but they are nothing compared to the pleasures of adultery.
- He sees things from an unusual vintage point.
- We sold our house and moved into one of those pandemoniums.
- My husband is a marvelous lover. He knows all my erroneous zones.
- Politically they were at locker-heads.
- Don’t tell me who sent it. I want to remain magnanimous.
- I didn’t tell them who I was. I used a facetious name.
- Both movies were stinkers that Indiana Jones could sue for deformation of character.
- The Americans really have a free press; it’s incarcerated in their constitution.
- Salary commiserates with experience.
- The cookbook is being compiled. Please submit your favorite recipe and a short antidote concerning it.
- Apartheid is a pigment of the imagination.
- The specialist charged exuberant fees.
- He suffered from unrequired love.
- Most readers will find this scholarly book to be obtuse.
And who among us hasn’t spotted head-scratchers in the classified columns such as Craigslist and Marketplace? Some of the most repeated are:
- Beautiful rod iron patio set
- Solid oak chester drawers
- Easy chairs with matching ottomen
- 200 board feet of popular wood
And finally, the best malapropisms are those that leap across the chasm of absurdity and land on the side of truth. Case in point: “Senators are chosen as committee chairmen on the basis of senility.” Boy, are they ever!
(Thanks to Richard Lederer, reprinted with permission.)
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