December 9, 2010

Mrs. Malaprop and the word manglers

As you may know, Mrs. Malaprop is a character in a play written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The character's name is a play on the French phrase mal à propos (literally "ill-suited"). Mrs. Malaprop reaches out for words when she speaks but misses her target by substituting words that sound like the original word, but are so ill-chosen as to be funny.

To give an example, Wikipedia cites these quotes spoken by the character in The Rivals:

 "...promise to forget this fellow - to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory."

"...she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying."

She's a great character but the disease isn't confined to fiction. Lots of people are Mrs. Malaprops and I love each of them. Deeply.

For instance, the other day I heard a woman on the news commenting on the death of a lovable, but loud, neighbor. She said "We're going to miss her around here. And we'll know she's gone -- because she was voicetrous, you know what I mean?"

There are a lot of people who have a constant word-salad going on in their brains -- and I find them fascinating. Famously, I had a friend who was the most haphazard speaker I've ever encountered. Anything could tumble out of his mouth; it was a complete jumble up there in his head. He was a lovable guy and a good friend but I always found myself laughing at the way he said things. He was gay too and at one point in our young lives, we would often go to gay cruising areas. But he could hardly relax when we did this. He was terrified of what he called "underclothes" policemen. That was my favorite word mish-mosh of his. He would do this all the time, combining two or three words as he did here with undercover and plainclothes. (He also mixed the pronouns "he" and "she" haphazardly, not because he was gay but because his brain had a hard time keeping track of any words.)

In general, how people say things fascinates me and of course this extends to print. I love word mix-ups of a particular kind. For instance, I once saw a sign in the front window of a deli that said, "No eating aloud in store!" I heartily approved. Those smacking sounds can be so distracting.

When I'm bored, I'll tune in to any natural language show on TV (except "reality" shows, of course) and settle down, not to watch the show but to hear the speakers speak. True crime shows are great for this because I get to hear the police officers, detectives and DAs speak. Since they don't use a script, their words are undisciplined and free. I love the regionalisms, the odd ways things are said in a particular area of the country. It's like visiting a foreign land. I love listening to people speak.

But then I love anything about language. Did you know that it's young people who create language? They make the changes and move language forward. Our language and everyone's languages are in their hands. (Their English teachers may have other ideas but they will lose the fight). Language is always changing and I like to sit in a rocking chair and listen as streams of language go by -- the old, the new, the confused and the delightful. It's a language smorgasbord out there. I'm tellin' ya.

Got any Mrs. Malaprop or word-mangler stories? Any word goofs that made you laugh? I know! Why not drop those stories into the comment thread? G'wan.

UPDATE: SP's "refudiate" is a perfect example of malapropism. I should have included this in the original post.

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