Are You Sometimes Malapropos?

I appreciate the interesting and diverse comments of late on my latest post about homonym errors or, as I termed it, “Homonymania.” 

There is a sense of joy in such discoveries perhaps (if you feel by making such gaffes public, you have somehow contributed to the betterment of proper semantic manners), but there is also sometimes a sense of despair if you keep on finding the same errors in writing or in print media.  “Why won’t they ever learn?”

     “Yes but . . . ” writes, “I keep seeing phase/faze errors in newspapers. Drives me batty!”

[Sidebar: Well, how about horde/hoard?  I brought to the attention of blog readers this question from an “Observer” Staff Blog, part of which appeared in the November 19 newspaper:  “Like to horde coupons?” Well, folks there don’t seem to be paying this blog site much attention. Here is, less than a week later, a sentence in the “Business” section that is part of a story on the attempt to reopen a downtown parking lot:  “Hoards of protests from merchants followed the City Council’s decision.”  Look here.  Look now.    According to my college dictionary: “Horde  n. A large group or crowd > nomadic Mongol tribe > Old Turkic origin”  “Hoard n. A hidden found or supply stored for future use, a cache > Old English origin”]

        Back to a comment from “Yes but . . . .”:  “On what planet are contribute and attribute homonyms [this relates to my earlier blog posting]?”  The writer is correct: these are not precise homonyms at all.  We should better classify them as “malapropisms.”  A ludicrous example of such would be referring to the Yeti as “an abdominal snowman.”

And, I would assert, there are distinct differences here, particularly in this sense:  a homonym error is only detectable in print [since orthography is the key], whereas a malapropism is most often spoken, since the speaker is fairly likely to be illiterate or nearly so–and also more likely to be unfamiliar with the differences in similar sounding words or phrases.  [The term “malapropism” developed from a character prone to these mishaps,  Mrs. Malaprop, in a comedy by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, “The Rivals” (1775).]

        Some characters on TV are apt to come up with malapropisms, particularly if they are created as “backwoods” or “hillbilly” types.  An example: Jed Clampett in “The Beverly Hillbillies,”  who memorably talked about “shooting some golfs.”

        It is often true also that those with little education or literacy will have trouble with medical terms.  We’ve probably all heard of “Old Timer’s Disease.”   Dr. Dean Edell, a radio talk show doctor, has developed quite a list of these,  including this from a woman who had been diagnosed with female problems, saying and believing that she had a case of “fireballs of the Eucharist,” instead, of course, “fibroids of the uterus.”

        But even the relatively well-educated can sometimes confuse similar sounding words. One of my colleagues at UNCP attended a student production one evening and ran into one of his students. She seemed quite taken by the experience of seeing the play, observing to Rudy that she had in high school thought about joining a student organization open to all aspiring “lesbians.” She, of course, had meant to say, “thespians.” [Thespis was the name for the legendary first dramatist of Ancient Greece. And the other word, by the way, also has its origins in ancient Greek language and mythology.]

        I had the pleasure of instructing several nurses, some of middle age,  in an evening English Composition course many years ago at then-PSU.  One of these, a bright and devoted student, told me that she had told her teenagae daughter that she did not known what a “gerbil” was until she had taken this course.  She meant, of course, or so I believe, “gerund,” which is a verb form (either a present participle or an infinitive) acting as a noun, as in the familiar quotation, “Living well is the best revenge.”

Let’s hear from you! Or more accurately, let’s see something from you!



2 Responses to “Are You Sometimes Malapropos?”

  1. Michelle Says:

    I couldn’t help but laugh.

    Here are some I’ve heard:
    He’s making a skeptical of himself (spectacle)
    My insurance collapsed (lapsed)
    Isn’t is a contraption (contraction)

  2. helen Says:

    I cured my Fibroid – You can too!

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