YUKON NEWS COLUMN — MALAPROPS
When I was a child and a gush of words got the better of me, or if I said something really flaky, I was always told: “Make sure to engage your mind before you put your tongue in gear.”
The mind is a wondrous creature. It operates according to its own arcane principles, and as much as assume we know what we are doing, we are all victims of our minds.
You only have to listen to people talk, I mean listen acutely, and our idiocy becomes immediately apparent.
I’m not discussing the usual ‘ah’ and ‘uh’ and ‘um’ (I’m a big ‘ummer’ myself) we use to connect thoughts that have wandered away into the bushes.
I’m thinking of the lumpy word repetitions that overwhelm some people’s speech. Two of the most notable are ‘like’ and ‘you know’ because you know how much it’s like, used, you know. But like, you know, one thing you will find these days is that you know has recently encountered some, like, amazing competition. Everything is amazing. We must have become an incredibly jaded people, you know, to need to be so amazed constantly. It’s like, amazing, when you think about it, you know ….
Well, at least we aren’t cool anymore. When I was growing up everything was so cool it was like walking around the world with a mouth full of mint. Now the world is merely amazing.
The worst thing about these linguistic glitches is that once you become aware of them, they will drive you absolutely screaming because they are so ubiquitous.
It has also been pointed out by specialists that they serve a real purpose as bridges in speech, like a chorus in a poem, allowing our mind to leap between thoughts while the tongue keeps the rhythm.
Take the classic Canadian ‘eh,’ which also serves a real purpose in illustrating our essential Canadian politeness. It usually converts a direct statement into a question, politely allowing the listener an opportunity to leap into the conversation if she or he choses.
One of the first cases of linguistic gotchas in English literature occurred when the eighteenth century playwright, Richard Sheridan introduced the staggeringly funny Mrs. Malaprop, a social climber who had a great vocabulary but not the brain to match it.
The term malaprop was coined after her antics. Why worry when any word will do in a pinch? One of her famed, accidental aphorisms was: ” He was the pineapple of perfection.” She meant pinnacle, of course. Another was: “Make no delusions to the past.”
Here are some modern malaprops from a web site. “Romeo and Juliet are an example of a heroic couplet.” “That man is an idiom.” “He wears shoes of stimulated alligator.” And my favourite: “We had a 15 inch erotic house plant in our living room.”
President Bush, has a severe case of foot in mouth, and is a master of not only malaprops, but spoonerism and tautologies, and possibly dyslexia, or so he claimed when he said: “The woman who knew that I had dyslexia — I never interviewed her.” Think about that sentence for a moment.
This is another typical Bushism. He’s speaking about his brother: “Anyway, I’m so thankful and gracious — gracious that my brother Jeb is concerned about the hemisphere as well.”
What’s evident with President Bush is that like most radio announcers, he has a phobia about dead air. He will rush in to fill it with the first word that enters his mind. Hopefully, one day this will not lead to tragic results.
Prime Minister Chretien has a similar affliction. Listen to him mangle English and you will just cringe. Most reporters dutifully clean up his speech to make it sound coherent when they transcribe it into print, but sometimes, in fits of pique, they will let their quotes read the same way they rolled out of his mouth, with hilarious results.
At first, Prime Minister Chretien was treated with sympathy by the English press, who assumed that he didn’t have a real grasp of the English language. After a while, they realized he mutilated his French grammar just as eagerly.
That’s why it’s come to be said of Chretien that he can’t speak English or French in either language.
Another classic slip of the tongue is the spoonerism, a term that was named after the much-loved Reverend Spooner, a fine scholar whose tongue kept flipping the first letters of words. Here’s a few of his classics.
That’s a well-boiled icicle (a well-oiled bicycle). Here’s to our queer old dean (Our dear old Queen). You’ve tasted two worms (You’ve wasted two terms). When the boys come home w’e’ll have the hags flung out (We’ll have the flags hung out). The Lord is our shoving leopard (our loving shepherd). He could continue uttering a near endless stream of phrases in this manner, usually only stopping when his audience collapsed from laughter.
Nowadays, linguistic experts are spoiling all the fun by mapping out the logic of brain confusion. In fact, they are analysing through word errors just how the marvellous human brain associates concepts. This technique has been called ‘neighbourhood structure,’ and it calculates density patterns of similar words in lexical retreival. It’s very dry and not nearly as enjoyable as listening to a howler.
My father used to let rip with some good ones when he got excited. I’ll never forget him bragging to us one night that he had “the ears of an owl and the eyes of an elephant.”
As much as we laugh at this kind of mistake, one shouldn’t get too arrogant. We all make tips of the slung.