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AS A linguistic hobby, I’ve been collecting two kinds of misused words, one category dating back more than 200 years, the other defined as recently as the current decade. They’re both good fun.
The older category is malapropisms, honoring Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Richard Sheridan’s Restoration comedy, The Rivals, first performed in 1775. The more recent kind is an eggcorn, a term coined by University of Edinburgh Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum in September 2003.
Sheridan’s naming of the character stems from the Latin malapropos, meaning “not apropos.” Mrs. Malaprop got laughs out of substituting a word that sounded almost correct, but wasn’t: “Sir, if I reprehend anything in this world…” or “He is the very pine-apple of politeness…”
These nonsensical misuses of words are also known as Dogberryisms, after the character of that name in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons.”
By contrast, an eggcorn introduces a new word combination that, even though formally incorrect, has the plausibility of context. The term arose from a linguistics paper discussing a woman’s substitution of “egg corn” for the word “acorn.”
Eggcorns often replace archaic or unfamiliar words with more common ones: “ex-patriot” when “expatriate” is intended. Or—a good one, I say—“mating name” instead of “maiden name.”
Several stumble across the boundary of eggcorns and malapropisms. People write “baited breath” when they mean “bated breath.” The latter means a hesitation of breath, its origin related to the word “abatement.” With the other, I’d wonder what the breath is using as bait.
Another residing more comfortably in malapropism is “beyond the pail,” meant to describe an action that’s glaringly unacceptable.
The correct phrase is “beyond the pale,” in the sense of outside a staked territory of security.
During the Late Middle Ages, The Pale was that portion of Ireland completely under English rule. The Latin word for “stake” is palus, whence also the word “palisade.”
Maybe you have favorite malapropisms or eggcorns.
I like Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s “Alcoholics Unanimous.” And the words of former Vice President Dan Quayle: “Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.”
From a New Scientist article: One worker described a colleague as “a vast suppository of information.” The worker then apologized for his “Miss-Marple-ism”—itself, a malapropism worthy of Bertrand Russell analysis.
And, of course, comedy writers have fun with malapropisms too. Archie Bunker from All in the Family referred to “the Women’s Lubrication Movement.”
My favorite is an exchange between Jimmy Stewart and Gracie Allen. Concerning Gracie’s husband George “Sugar-Throat” Burns and his thwarted singing ambition, Jimmy said, “Please offer George my condolences.”
Replied Gracie, “I will, but I’m surprised if they fit him. You’re so tall.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2012