Thursday, April 7, 2011

Malapropisms

We move to New Jersey from the Midwest the year I turned twelve. One of the first great discoveries was that there were way more channels on television than in Cleveland. One station seemed to air continuous movie fare, much like many of the cable channels today. We saw House On Haunted Hill about ten times in one week.

There were also shows on the air that we'd never heard of or seen, and one of these was The Bowery Boys, in vivid black and white. What I remember about the show was a character who butchered the English language by using the wrong words in place of correct words. What I didn't know was that there's a word for what he was doing. That word was malapropism.

One website defines it this way....

malapropism: the usually unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase; especially the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context.

The definition is clumsy, and in the case of The Bowery Boys inaccurate. That is, the character (played by Horace Debussy Jones) may have been misusing and abusing words unintentionally, but the screenwriter was very deliberate in putting such words in his mouth.

The word itself has a similar origin, a play by Richard Sheridan in which one of the characters is a Mrs. Malaprop who goes about butchering the words to great effect. For example, "He is the very pineapple of politeness." (Intending to say pinnacle.)

"He's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile." (alligator)

Shakespeare, too, even used the twisted unintentional word for comic effect.

The twentieth century has produced its share of witty wordsmiths in this category, not the least of which is the great Yogi Berra. While surfing for additional material for this page I discovered that Samuel Goldwyn was likewise an excellent malaproper. Here are a few of the lines he's known to have concocted.

"A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on."

"Gentlemen, include me out."

"If I could drop dead right now, I'd be the happiest man alive."

"Too caustic? To hell with the cost. If it's a good picture, we'll make it."

"I read part of it all the way through."

"Too caustic? To hell with the cost. If it's a good picture, we'll make it."

"I read part of it all the way through."

"Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined."

"I don't want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their jobs."

"I never put on a pair of shoes until I've worn them at least five years."

"Spare no expense to save money on this one."

"The scene is dull. Tell him to put more life into his dying."

I myself have been guilty of a few unintended mixed metaphors. Not sure what to call that. Malapropriate? I spent years saying things like "He's a little green behind the ears," not knowing that the right phrase is wet behind the ears, or else he is a greenhorn. My grandfather was good for a few of those as well, but he knew exactly what he was doing. You could see it by the twinkle in his eye.

If anything on this page makes you smile, run with it. And have a good day.

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