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Malaprops Aforethought : As the Lady Said, 'Allegories Live on the Banks of the Nile'

May 29, 1988|JACK SMITH

ANYONE WHO is married to, works with or is otherwise in daily proximity to a person who has a gift for making malapropisms is indeed favored by the gods.

A malapropism (malaprop, for short) is a ludicrous misuse of words, especially through confusion caused by resemblance of sound.

The matron saint of malapropists, of course, was Mrs. Malaprop herself, a character in the play, "The Rivals," who observed, for example, that "allegories live on the banks of the Nile."

Some people seem to have a genius for malaprops. Without exception, their gift is unconscious. Somehow, a contrived malaprop does not ring true. The very best malaprops make a perverse sense; they often reveal the obverse side of whatever point they are meant to make. Invariably, they make us laugh--anything from a belly laugh to a low, helpless chuckle.

For years I have collected malaprops as some people collect stamps or coins. They have no intrinsic value. They can not be traded or sold. They cannot even be used again. A malaprop must be spontaneous and fresh. But they can be read and cherished.

I greatly envy a colleague of mine whose wife has the gift. She once observed, for example, that a person with a tumor must go in for an autopsy. She also refers to small, low-slung German dogs as Datsuns. In Alaska, she says, they have token poles. In the Middle Ages, she believes, Europe was devastated by the platonic plague. Young people in yellow robes who chant on Hollywood Boulevard are disciples of Harvey Kushner. Her husband must be among the happiest of men.

Now John M. Freter of Yucca Valley has enlarged my collection by sending me a batch of malaprops attributed to a former executive who had been promoted from an engineering job for which he was far better qualified. Mr. Freter believes that this chap's malaprops were the result of his inability to deal with the more imaginative language of his new position.

As you can see, in most instances, despite the mangled language, the meaning is clear enough.

Of a boring speaker, our friend said: "He sounds like a funeral dredge at a wake." Some advice: "You should never answer an anonymous letter." Of himself: "At that time I was young and green behind the ears."

On taking action: "We shouldn't sit back on our hunches and not do anything." An amiable proposal: "Let's order another drink. You can't fly on one foot." Of an ailing friend: "He's in Mount Sinus Hospital."

A cosmic idea: "That's true only at this time in space." Summing up: "We've had enough trowels and tribulations." An aggressive suggestion: "Let's do it all at one swell foop."

Of course "one swell foop" is technically a spoonerism, rather than a malaprop, but it's a horse in the same ballpark. You will remember that the Rev. W. A. Spooner gave his name to this linguistic mishap, which consists of transposing syllables of words. Thus, Rev. Spooner assured his congregation that "The Lord is a shoving leopard." During World War I he told the home front that "When the boys come back from France, we'll have the hags flung out."

Freter's executive said of a colleague: "She's so dumb she couldn't think her way out of a paper bag." Urging thrift: "We're spending eons of money for the wrong objectives." An opinion: "These figures must be right, because they pretty much jive."

Freter suggests that this fellow's problem arose from his sincere attempt to adapt to his new job. "He was unable to make a solid cerebral connection between what he had been hearing and what he could recall when expressing himself. The results were many amusing, verbal, semantic rim shots. . . . Many times they went right past the listener, they were said with such sincerity."

Perhaps the problem was, as the man once said of a colleague, "He's just a small peg in a large hole."

His difficulties may indeed be explained by Dr. Laurence J. Peter's famous aphorism: "In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to the level of his incompetence."

As our friend once said, "I'm just trying to simulate some thinking on this subject."

Aren't we all?

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