English, like any language, lends itself to hilarious mistakes and confusions. One of the best-known of these is uttering a malapropism, a word misused or wrongly applied, usually with the intention of showing off one’s erudition. The word comes from the name of a character in the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals (1775), Mrs Malaprop, noted for her ridiculous misuse of words (such as “contagious countries” for “contiguous” ones and “allegories” on the banks of the Nile when she meant alligators). Her name is derived from the French for “inappropriate” (mal à propos, literally “poorly placed”), since in her pretentious attempts to sound refined and cultured by using sophisticated language, Mrs Malaprop invariably mixes up her words. “You will promise to forget this fellow,” she haughtily tells a friend, “to illiterate him, I say, from your memory”. She meant, of course, “obliterate”! Unfortunately, she herself failed to live up to the advice she dispensed to another character “that she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying” — she intended to say “apprehend”, not “reprehend”.
Mrs Malaprop, of course, was merely a humorous fictional character in a piece of theatre, but malapropisms are far more common in real life than most people realise, since mixing up words one barely knows is a common human affliction. The American baseball player Yogi Berra famously spoke of Texas having a lot of “electrical votes” when he meant “electoral” ones. A television pundit solemnly spoke of “entomology” for the study of word origins rather than “etymology”. Many a would-be debunker of pedantry uses “obtuse” (which means stupid or slow-witted) when meaning “abstruse” (esoteric or difficult to understand). Others, trying to sound smart, render the expression “for all intents and purposes” as “for all intensive purposes”.
But to really qualify as a memorable malapropism, the misused word must be nonsensical or ludicrous in context, yet similar in sound to what was intended. One example is the person trying to pay a compliment — by describing another as “the very pinnacle of politeness” — who instead praises him as “the very pineapple of politeness”. A man excitably talking about a victim of snakebite rather spoiled the drama by explaining that a “doctor administered the anecdote” when, of course, he meant the “antidote”. A student boasting about his on-time attendance in school tells his parents, “I have good punctuation — I’m never late!” Alas, he meant he was good at “punctuality”, not “punctuation”. The recent floods in Kerala had someone explain to me that “The flood damage was so bad they had to evaporate the area”. (He meant “evacuate”, though evaporation of all the excess water might have helped too). My personal favourite: A prospective dinner guest emailed me that she couldn’t eat crabs or any other “crushed Asians” (she had clearly heard the word “crustaceans” for shellfish but never seen it written).
These are mistakes made by ordinary people, but malapropisms by the famous often make the news. Richard Daley, the former mayor of Chicago during that city’s 1968 riots, notoriously declared: “The police are not here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder.” His fellow mayor, Thomas Menino of Boston, described a deceased person as “a man of great statue” when he meant “stature”. Texas Speaker of the House Gib Lewis declared some event to be “unparalysed in the state’s history” when he meant it was “unparalleled”. An actor in the famous TV series The Sopranos spoke of “creating a little dysentery among the ranks”, when he meant “dissension”. The character Archie Bunker in the now-classic All in the Family series routinely uttered malapropisms: a dying man’s “last will and tentacle” (he meant testament), the adage “patience is a virgin” (he should have said it’s a virtue), watching “a menstrual show” (he’d heard a minstrel show), listening to a “battery operated transvestite radio” (it was, of course, a transistor radio), meeting someone suffering from “very close veins” (her ailment involved varicose veins), “the Women’s Lubrication Movement” (for Liberation), and so on.
A famous comedian once declared that “Having one wife is called monotony”. It’s called monogamy, pal — but then maybe it wasn’t a malapropism at all, and he said exactly what he meant!!
Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language
Shashi Tharoor's World of Words3 months ago