The divine Mrs M is a character in a restoration comedy The Rivals (1775) by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. A somewhat distracted woman, she has a habit of verbal blunders. Her name was derived from the French phrase mal á propos, which translates as ‘poorly to the purpose’. Like some other well known folk whose names have entered our language as nouns or verbs (e.g. Thomas Bowdler 1754–1825, who published an edition of Shakespeareminus the ‘rude’ words and expressions, hence the verb ‘to bowdlerise’; and Franz Mesmer 1734–1815, whose pioneer work led to the develop of hypnosis hence the verb ‘to mesmerise’) she has become immortal. As Mrs Malaprop herself said, ‘If I reprehend anything in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!’ On stage the character can still deliver a comedic punch. Some of her other beauties include: ‘She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile,’ ‘My affluence over my niece is very small’ and ‘He can tell you the perpendiculars.’ As the old bawdy ballad goes, ‘We heard she said but we knew what she meant’.
Several generations earlier, Shakespeare featured malapropisms before they had a name, unless that name was ‘Dogberries’. Dogberry was the verbally incontinent constable of the watch in Much Ado about Nothing. His goofs included: ‘Comparisons are odorous,’ ‘Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons’ and ‘O villain! thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption’. It’s a grand tradition, the unintended gaffe. And away from the stage there are some famous ones recorded from the lips of politicians, (e.g. ‘We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile,’ said George W. Bush), celebrities (e.g. ‘Your ambition—is that right—is to abseil across the English channel?’ said Cilla Black) and sportspeople (e.g. ‘I might just fade into Bolivian, you know what I mean?’ said Mike Tyson). Sometimes they even occur in print. English spin bowler Ashley Giles was meant to have his achievements commemorated on coffee mugs as ‘The King of Spin’ but some Malaprop in the printing department managed some comic immortality with ‘The King of Spain’ (not sure what King Juan Carlos thought about that).
My favourites aren’t famous. They’re the ones I have gathered from strangers on public transport, colleagues (sorry), friends (sorry) and people in business meetings. Some have appeared in writing but most are conversational. These are a few of my favourite Malaprop things:
- Without further adieu
- No holes barred
- It’s a beggar’s belief
- One foul swoop
- Honing in
- Plutonic relationship
- Rich as creases
- A pox on both your houses
- A perric victory
- Cold consolation
- Perculate upwards
- A man of real statue
- Let’s jump off that bridge when we come to it
- A dark day afternoon
- In complete agreeance
- That’s the crutch of the problem
- They were totally decimated
- I’m the soul of digression
- Women compromise more than half the organisation
- I’m pumped today, really enervated
- An Anglican pasta
- Prostrate cancer
- A pigment of the imagination
- He had to take electrocution lessons
- Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if it floats
We’re only human. Everyone is entitled to a Sarah Palin moment (‘refudiate’ – was that meant to be ‘repudiate’ or ‘refute’?) now and again. If nobody notices, we’re safe. And if we notice, we can laugh at ourselves.
If we’re really on our comedic toes, we can subvert the gaffe into a laff. Now I’m not sure there is such a thing as an intentional malapropism, which would just be a play on words, but they’re witty if you can manage them (e.g. ‘I can say that without fear of contraception’ said comic actress Hylda Baker, and ‘Do you take this man to be your awful wedded husband?’ said Rowan Atkinson). Malaproperly amusing.
As speakers and writers of English we have a multiplicity of word choices at our disposal. For example, instead of ‘house’ we have a range of synonyms: home, domicile, dwelling, abode, residence, seat, habitat, quarters, accommodation, place, lodging, billet, lodge, household, address, habitation, tenancy, occupancy, pad, digs, mansion, shack, cottage, bungalow etc. How clever are we? Well, we’re clever in the way pirates are, having stolen most of these words from other cultures.
The size of English is in some dispute, with estimates varying among linguists and lexicographers. There is a consensus that, at minimum, our language contains between 250,000 and 300,000 words. This excludes words that have become archaic or functionally obsolete. If we were to include the entirety of our language, with thousands of Latin and Greek based scientific names, foreign words, technical terms, initialisms and acronyms, the count could go as high as a million words.
It’s a truism to say that living languages are always changing. Like other tongues, ours keeps adding fresh words and dropping others. Although many of today’s newly coined expressions have their origin either in technology or pop culture, we keep helping ourselves to (i.e. stealing, taking, nicking, purloining, appropriating, anglicising) words from other languages. We’ve been at this thieving game for centuries, in the process amassing the largest vocabulary in the world, between three and five times the size of some other languages. Is it any wonder that seventy-five percent of English is stolen property?
Blessed with so many alternative expressions, we have shades of meaning not available to speakers of other world languages like French, Spanish or Mandarin. Of course, this doesn’t make English superior, just bigger (larger, more capacious, even bloated). The twentieth century and the Renaissance each saw explosions of new coinage but by far the most significant harvest occurred earlier, with the Norman Conquest. For three or four centuries after that invasion, England was a trilingual nation, with French, Latin and English used by the different social classes for a range of different functions. As heirs to such a rich repository, we have multiple nuances at our memory fingertips, often available in selections of three. Kingly, royal, regal. Go, depart, exit. Ask, question, interrogate. Secure, firm, fast. Holy, sacred, consecrated. Time, age, epoch. Rise, mount, ascend. Remainder, rest, residue.
So why then, with all this lexicographical richness at our disposal, do we hear or read of so many native English speakers struggling to express their thoughts? It’s, like, you know, thing, stuff, sort of, and that. Know what I mean? And that. In Britain the equivalent verbal tic is ‘innit’ (Speak English, innit?). In the USA, there are many regional variations but a common verbal incontinence comes in the combination of ‘hey,’ ‘like,’ ‘man’ and ‘whoa’. In these various English-speaking countries certain people only seem to need a handful of words, often just fillers that take the place of conversation: ‘Yeah, like, it’s, you know, and that. I’m like, you know, and he’s like, whatever, and that. Kind of.’
Is our education system to blame? Are we too tired to think? Are we overworked? Are we over- or under-stimulated? Are passive forms of entertainment like television to blame? Are the Internet, smart phones and other electronic tools robbing our capacity for expression in the way that machinery can rob our muscles of exercise? Dunno. Sorta. A bit. Like.
And does it even matter? Am I being elitist in even suggesting there is something wrong with verbal incoherence and written impoverishment? Know what I mean? That’s the real problem: how can you know what I mean when I don’t know?
It’s as bad as. Fully sick. Keeping it real. I’m not entirely sure about anything of these but I can make guesses, hoping I’m on the right wavelength. At least there’s a sense of reality to such idiomatic expressions. But how do I respond to ‘yeah, like, you know, and that. I’m like, you know, and he’s like, whatever, and that’? All I can do is grunt in return, and wonder if some fellow humans are devolving to Cro-Magnons. Pity about the one million words of English: some people get by with fewer than twenty. Kind of.