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Wordstock - Watch Your Words

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Watch Your Words!

 (For Mangling Malapropisms) 



Dear Reader,

Each month I wait with baited breath to see you here and all the while I hope that you collaborate with all that I say…

Wait! I can hear a few giggles already. Did I say something funny? 

Well, a friend just glanced at my note and says I ought to have written ‘Each month I wait with bated breath to see you here and all the while I hope that you corroborate with all that I say’. 

Okay!  But what was I thinking? 

You see, baited and collaborate correspond phonetically with ‘bated’ and ‘corroborate’. I goofed up royally!

Clearly, misspeaking and misspelling words, and using ones that do not mean what I intend, is a shortcoming that often puts me on the spot. It doesn’t pay to sound humorous in non-humorous ways, and I hadn’t in the least aspired to generate a laughter session. My speech error is much like the girl’s who exclaimed delightfully how proud she felt to dance the flamingo in the competition. Ah! If only flamenco hadn’t sounded similar to flamingo she, like me, wouldn’t have made a monkey of herself. 

Okay, so that was a glimpse of how things can be if we aren’t mindful of our words. Mark Twain pointed out how the use of an inappropriate word disservices an implied utterance : “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug." Clearly, when you use a similar-sounding, yet, unsuitable word in place of the right one, the effect is often comical, and the instance of speech error is termed ‘malapropism’. While communication demands are higher than the time one has to look up a dictionary, using the right words can be tricky for someone who confuses two words that sound similar, and uses the wrong one.  An interesting syndrome that afflicts many speakers, great and small, alike.

Malapropism is a fascinating communication gaffe that draws its source from a character named Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play, ‘The Rivals’. Mrs. Malaprop’s frequent slipups and recklessness in her use of words produce great hilarity as in, Illiterate him from your memory instead of ‘obliterate’, and she's as headstrong as an allegory, rather than ‘alligator’. He is the very pineapple of politeness! ‘Pinnacle’, Mrs. Malaprop! The woman has her audience in stiches each time she drops the ball: apprehend for reprehend, vernacular for oracular, arrangement for derangement, and epithets for epitaphs. 

Malapropisms often occur as a kind of speech error in everyday speech. Perhaps, we have all flung a misnomer at least once in our lifetime. However, for some, the malady affects their speech pattern in marked degrees. Quite like Grandma who says she’s grown lack toast intolerant and demands canine pepper instead of ‘cayenne pepper’. She skillfully reverses ‘blood transfusion’ with blood transmission. But, that’s Granny, plagued with chronic malapropism, and at eighty two she admits it’s late to nick it in the butt.  While we generously discount her lapses, we were abashed when she thoughtlessly swapped ‘condos’ with condoms.  

If you  bond with granny in a kindred breed, and want to avoid egg on your face, watch out before hurling a brassiere in place of brasserie or carnal instead of carnival.  Also, it can hurt if you accidently prostrate for prostate. To some monogamy is monotony…What say? laugh  Similarly, bear in mind that you can circumscribe a circle around a square, but circumcise? NOOOOO!!!

Accordingly, if you constantly mix up ensure and insure, words which sound alike but are nuanced distinctly, do yourself a favor; look them up. The same goes for allude and elude, influence and affluence, pigment or figment, expansive vs expensive, acute or abstruse, and so many more.  That explains why ‘optical illusions’ pop up as optical conclusions and ‘men of great statute’ sometimes turn into men of great statue.

However, to think that malapropism is a malady of the masses is a miscalculation. Celebrities, TV presenters, commentators, and political leaders are hardly immune to such lexical deficiencies.

Bartholomew Ahern or Bertie Ahern who served as Prime Minister of Ireland between 1997 to2008 was severely criticized for his poor communication skills that was laden with malapropisms and other language gaffes, and soon his bloopers earned the tag  ‘Bertiespeak’.The Irish media noted his use of road crash for ‘road map’ on several occasions.  While he warned his countrymen against upsetting the apple tart of his country’s economic success, he carelessly tossed aside ‘cart’ for ‘tart’. The leader complained, It’s all smokes and daggers referring to what he considered the media’s conspiracy to discredit him. Little did the English speaking premier realize that he had inadvertently slashed ‘smokes and mirrors’ with his slipshod daggers.

Nevertheless, when it comes to misemployment of words, there’s none like the former US President George W. Bush. One of his unforgettable vocabulary faux pas--We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile--raised a million eyebrows the world over.

The brutality of Afghan fighters beleaguered the president so deeply that he barely realized his lapse when he woefully expressed: And they have no disregard for human life. 

Another of his hilarious howlers: It will take time to restore chaos and order. 

Further on, his nonsensical brew of ‘misunderstand’ and ‘underestimate’ as in They misunderestimated me, is another one of his favorite speech blunders.

 Besides, how can the world ever forget that the President of the largest federal republic swapped ‘missile launches’ for mental losses?  .

Well, Mr.Bush, there’s little you could do when your wit and wisdom were ‘hostage’, and not hostile to kinky garble! Bush did resignate (resonate) with the American people and his verbal trips popularly termed ‘Bushisms’ continued to embetter the English language for a decade. The world, however, remembers the leader for his ‘embittered’ political maneuvers and his foreign-handed foreign policy.

President Bush, however, was in fine company!  Sarah Palin, the Alaska Governor and once a Vice-Presidential Candidate for the US, was ridiculed for calling upon her Twitter followers to refudiate the proposal to build a mosque on the site of the World Trade Center. She later corrected herself and asked them to refute the same, though failed again to use the right word in the context. Refudiate is Mrs.Palin’s most memorable additions to the language that she coined by mingling ‘refute’ and ‘repudiate’.

In August 2013, the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, addressed an audience of Liberty Party members stating, No one, however smart, however well educated, however experienced is the ‘suppository’ of all wisdom”.  His lack of sensitiveness about inserting a ‘suppository’ in the wrong place took the media by storm, whizzing Abbott along with it. Well, well, all he meant was the nontoxic, painless ‘repository’!  But there was suppossively…err, suppossably, oops! supposedly, an audience  that boo-booed the leader in hushed tones and left him sore with shame.

I hope Granny and the world leaders have said enough to acquaint you with word collisions, and in case the condition afflicts you, take comfort in the fact that you aren’t alone.  As Charles Dickens said, “Don't be afraid! We won't make an author of you, while there's an honest trade to be learnt, or trick-baking to turn to.”

Trick-baking? No? Why does it have to sound the same as ‘brick-making’?  Not again! Didn’t I say I have trouble keeping these straight?

 Anyway, enough said! I think I need to stop now.

 Au reservoir… au revoir. Whatever!



About  the column :  I am no literary scholar, neither a linguist nor a grammarian, but one amongst you, who uses everyday English. It is my love for the language that enables me to observe keenly the trends in modern English. My column WordStock is an attempt to document the visible communication pattern and trends in the English language that we use as a tool to express, connect and correspond. No highbrowed, scholarly stuff but some salient peculiarities and quirks that mark regular expressions. It is all in good humor, about you and me, and the varied ingredients that constitute our language. So, stay on, enjoy the vignettes, and feel free to share your views.


About the Author :  The fragments that make up the world, its people and the impression they leave on her, prompts Ruby to share with you bits and pieces that you may find interesting or informative or both. Her reflections are a mosaic of personal and shared flavors. The content varies, but they're all about people-people like you and me, our footprints and her impressions, our pictures and her albums. She invites you to dip into her flavors, though you have the right to relish or refuse. Should you decide to scratch the surface, agree to disagree with her, but a thumbs up now and then won't hurt!

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