Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Open da Vinda, I'm Sophisticated!!!

Republicans understood the importance of bondage between mother and child.”
Vice-President Dan Quayle, 1991

There is a word in English to describe this type of mistake (confusing “bondage” with “bonding”) committed by Dan Quayle, the man who provided impeachment insurance for George Herbert Bush. The word is “malapropism,” often shortened to “malaprop.” This term derives from Mrs. Malaprop (mal à propos, “inappropriate” in French), a character in Richard Sheridan`s 1775 play The Rivals, who has a penchant for this type of gaffe. For example, she declares one man to be the “very pineapple of politeness,” instead of pinnacle and states that a man is “ as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile” (i.e. alligator).

For decades, I have been a malaprop miner and I'd like to share some of the nuggets I've unearthed:

A friend related to me that his uncle once came into a stuffy room and demanded, “Open a window Norm, I’m sophisticating!” Another friend mentioned to me recently that she grew up with someone very prone to malaprops who once averred “When a child gets to a certain age the unbiblical cord must be severed.” A former business associate told me that after he gave a eulogy at a family funeral, his cousin told him “that was the most touching urology I’ve ever heard.” At times, it is the particular context of a blooper that makes us howl. A friend who is a history professor at McGill University received a term paper from a student that dealt with relations between India and China. In it, the student wrote about the “wonton aggression of the Chinese.”

Two other friends shared these whoppers committed, or related, by family members:

    My sister-in-law who upon returning from the ophthalmologist informed the collected company that she “has a genital defect in her left eye.”
    My late mother-in-law had a friend who went to the doctor for anautopsy but everything was fine and she came home.

It would seem that medical malaprops are rampant, if not mestastisizing outright. Recently, I chanced upon the mother of a longtime friend of mine and I inquired as to the state of her husband’s health. She informed me that her husband Nat’s “prostrate was acting up and that his hemogoblin was out-of-whack.” I resisted a puerile temptation of inquiring as to her husband’s acute vagina or to her very close veins and carnal tunnel syndrome.

Because malaprops make us chuckle, we see the exploitation of this type of humour in many television programs. In the 1970s program All in the Family, the central character Archie Bunker told his wife Edith that if she was experiencing minstrel pains while administrating she should see the groinecologist, and he railed against the vagrant disregard for the law by the youth of today. While consecrating on the evening newspaper he informed his “meathead” son-in-law that the Pope was inflammable.

From the same era, on Saturday Night Live, Gilda Radner played a character, Emily Litella, who wondered why people worried about “violins on television, jewelry in the Soviet Union and endangered feces.” She also spoke out against the practice of “busting schoolchildren” for the purpose of integration. When her faux pas were exposed, her weak rejoinder was “never mind.

The writers for the program The Sopranos kept up this malapropian tradition and I suspect, given the pervasive graphic violence of the series, the bloopers were often added to supply some comic relief. Here were some of my favourites:
    There's no stigmata with going to a shrink.
    Let's create a little dysentery in the ranks.
    She's an albacore around my neck.
    He could technically not have penisary contact with her volvo.

It is the very artlessness of malaprops that makes them endearing. And aside from the pure joy elicited from hearing someone mess up, malaprops are entertaining because they reveal hidden connections between words. For this reason, I find it interesting to see some of the errors that children commit and find that often their mistaken words are quite logical. For example, I have heard children call an “icicle” an “ice tickle,” an “umbrella,” a “rainbrella,” “kindergarten,” turn into “kidney garter” and a “gazebo” transformed to “gazebra.” My partner Carol told me that when her daughter Beatrice was a little tot she referred to “flutterbys” and when not happy told her Mom that she was “upsad.” One friend related to me that while her daughter was away at summer camp, that she wrote a letter complaining about her “dire rear.” Still another colleague related to me that her precocious six year old son informed her that he was “black toast intolerant.”

Alexander Pope stated that “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” Sometimes an inexact knowledge of words isn’t so much perilous as just rib-ticklingly hilarious.

If you'd like to share any malaprops with me, email me at hrichler@gmail.com

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