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WHICH CAME FIRST: the malaprop, a humorous misuse of similar sounding words, or Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals?
The French language gives a clue: The phrase mal à propros literally means “poorly placed.” According to The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (2 Volume Set),the concept entered the English language as “malapropos” in 1630, more than a century before Sheridan chose his character’s name and almost two centuries before Lord Byron is credited with using “malaprop” in the sense of an error of speech.
And 171 years after Byron, Philip Norman came up with Your Walrus Hurt The One You Love, a delightful collection of these misuses of our language. Here are tidbits gleaned from his book.
Origins. Norman wrote, “When Sheridan’s Mrs Malaprop irritably complained that Lydia Languish was as ‘headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile,’ she was not inventing, merely mal-appropriating the foible that bears her name. Two centuries earlier in Much Ado About Nothing, Dogberry the constable had proudly ‘comprehended two aspicious persons’ at the head of his ‘dissembly.”
Indeed, a Dogberry is another name for a malapropism.
The English Affinity for Malaprops. Norman observed, “The fact is that the English are a nation of malapropists and that our language in its richest parts derives from our reluctance to pronounce any word—especially any foreign word—correctly, if we can help it. The urge to malaprop arises from three fine old English qualities. The first is unrepentant ignorance. The second is contempt for other races. The third is the steadfast belief that whatever any English person says must be right.”
I’m reminded of a dear English friend who pronounced it Babington when we Yanks read otherwise: I’d say, “Isn’t it ‘Badminton?” “Yes,” she replied, “Babington.”
Norman noted, “… you can see how ‘bloody’ as an oath mutated from the sacrilegious ‘By Our Lady,’ or how a tavern named after the Infanta of Castile ended up as the Elephant and Castle.”
A President Malapropist. Norman wrote, “President Ronald Reagan’s reliance on cue-cards which his contact lenses sometimes cannot fully distinguish makes him a malapropist par excellence.” Norman cited Reagan grasping for a Biblical allusion and coming up with “Simpson slew the Philippines.”
A Press Corps Misunderstanding. Norman described, “During the visit of President John F. Kennedy and his fashionable young wife to Paris in 1962, a new word became the vogue among the White House press corps—‘treasurely.’ Everything in Paris, the correspondents told one another, was ‘just too treasurely.’ ”
“The word,” Norman conjectured, “is said to have been derived from Jackie Kennedy’s remark on visiting the Louvre and seeing the Mona Lisa: ‘Oh—it’s très jolie.’ ”
A Malady List. A man over 40 experiencing a “midwife crisis.” A woman consulting an eye doctor about “her Cadillacs.” Other maladies include “congenial heart disease,” a woman being “inconceivable,” and a man being “impudent.”
School Essays: “A virgin forest is a place where the hand of man has never set foot.” “Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock.” And a uniquely British one: “Salome did the Dance of the Seven Veils in front of Harrods.”
On the Pope Being Inflammable. “Bring a microphone, Vicar. The agnostics in this church are very poor.”
Insults Galore: “Well, of all the unmedicated gall….” “We’ll soon nip that idea in the butt.” “Hoist on your own leotard!” “You nincompimp!”
Norman cited an old favorite of time: “There is also the story of the small boy, holding a burial service for a dead bird, who cheerily intoned: ‘In the name of the Father and the Son… and into the ’ole he goes.’ ” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022