Malaprop Monday

You could have knocked me over with a 10-foot pole.

That’s not only a real life example, but also my reaction every time I hear a really good malapropism or mixed metaphor.  For whatever reason, my life’s path has been graced by many a modern day Mrs. Malaprop who, God love her, utters well-intentioned phrases with a twisted tongue.  

We know Mrs. Malaprop as the 18th century character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play, The Rivals, who personified the habit of inadvertently swapping a word for one with a similar sound, rendering the phrase nonsensical or, more often, really funny.

Everyone knows a Mrs. (or Mr.) Malaprop.

I will never forget one walking into my office distraught; she said tests showed she had fiber-optic tumors.   I thought to myself, ooh, that must be painful.

The same woman once told of a colleague who gave a speech at a conference.  I think what she intended to say was that, after the speech, attendees flocked around him.  Instead, she said his speech was so successful the audience flogged him.

A top executive at that same company once reported that her business unit was making money hand over foot.

Recently, as I discussed this topic with my husband, he confessed to his own high profile slip.  In a division memo on Safety at Sea he reported that, during a shipboard mission, a well known oceanographer was hospitalized after having lost the majority of his hand in a winch (a device used to adjust the tension of a rope or cable).  What’s the malapropism, you ask?  My husband reported that Dr. Smith lost his hand in a wench.

Malapropisms are also associated with mixed metaphors and nothing titillates a word nymph more than a good mixed metaphor.

I once heard “Don’t burn your bridges before they’re hatched” while trying desperately not to picture a bridge being hatched.  Talk about painful.

If you have a favorite malapropism or mixed metaphor you’d like to share, I’ll be here, holding my bated breath.

Note:  Also akin to malapropisms are mondegreens, phrases that are often misheard or misunderstood.  But let’s save those for the next time we talk about (you guessed it!) song lyrics.


Filed under All Things Wordish, Reading

10 responses to “Malaprop Monday

  1. My two favorites were when we were working in Italy. I’m certain I committed more than two as I mangled what little I had learned of their language. But the two I heard were, “You hit that nail right on the nose.” and, “That opens a whole bag that has worms in it.”

  2. Speaking of wenches, the Coast Press a few years back had a front-page story about a small plane that ditched in Rehoboth Bay. The photo of the plane being taken from the water mechanically was accompanied by at 16-point cutline that stated the plane was removed by a “wench!” (I looked and looked and couldn’t find her anywhere.) Rob Rector, then a columnist for that paper, shared a horrified laugh with me about it.

    But my favorite comes from 30 years ago, when I worked with an excitable Italian man whose creative use of English provided much comic relief. He was describing a tense situation to me once, and confessed that, “I was pissing my pants right and left!”

  3. Rebekah

    Aw heck. I’ve been talking like this since I was green behind the ears.

  4. William Greene

    Reading your column brings to mind one word: Norm Crosby.

  5. Ever heard of someone dying of a brain aphorism? I have.

  6. Lisa Watson

    Knowing that “bated breath” is commonly seen written “baited breath” these days, I was curious to discover the origin of the phrase, and so, of course, I looked it up. No, I’m not going to lecture on the origin of the phrase… I just want to share a cute little poem I came across while researching.

    Cruel Clever Cat, by Geoffrey Taylor:

    Sally, having swallowed cheese,
    Directs down holes the scented breeze,
    Enticing thus with baited breath
    Nice mice to an untimely death.

  7. My high school classmates were scandalized by a history teacher who routinely “spilled the beans out of the bag” or “stuck his neck out on a limb.”

  8. Monica,

    I’ve shared a few with you, but one of the recent ones I came across here in Barbados was ‘road scholar’ (Rhodes Scholar?). Better than a ‘road’s collar’?

  9. Deirdre

    I have made quite a few of these and am definitely a fan. One of my favorites comes from an obit for an elderly person. I’ll paraphrase: “having lived a long and full life, she witnessed many important events in our history including the assignations of JFK, RFK, and MLK.” Unfortunate.

    And watch those typos: I once produced a fundraising letter that announcing the annual suction instead of auction!

  10. N

    I lOVE these! My favourite one to use (but no one ever comments on it) is: “We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.”

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