My intolerance of inappropriate word use is a curse. Confused homophones nag at me; principle vs principal, dependent vs dependant and a thousand other word pairs. But my futile condemnation of incorrect English is leavened by a lighter side. I do love a good malapropism; the misuse of a like-sounding word to comic effect. Like Kim in Kath and Kim just wanting to be effluent, or George W. Bush sounding off at terrorists for trying to hold the US hostile.
In Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals, the character Mrs Malaprop mercilessly mangles the language, famously declaring of another lady that ‘she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.’ Now, I’m not one to cast dispersions, but it’s clear that George Dubya is actually Mrs Malaprop’s descendant. He sought to hide that particular light under a bushel but, as always, didn’t quite get it right.
Contemporary malapropisms abound. ‘I gave the bugger short shift,’ said my mate Dennis yesterday at the nineteenth hole. I choked on my beer, an image springing unbidden to mind of Dennis administering summary rectal justice with his gear lever. Then there is the ever-popular post-golf topic among senior males; the onset of prostatic inefficiency. In between frequent toilet breaks, my fellow hackers share in hushed tones the latest updates on their prostrates. I once mentioned my own angry little gland, only to be savagely corrected. ‘Prostrate, not prostate,’ hissed Dennis. ‘Don’t you know your own bloody language?’
A leper unable to change his spots, I insisted on explaining about word confusion and quoted him a few more malapropisms. Like the story about an eight year-old who produced an entrancingly different rendition of the Sinatra classic Come Fly With Me. In her piping treble, she confided to her adoring audience that:
‘In llama land there’s a one man band
And he’ll root his flute for you.’
Hard to top that, but I really enjoyed one that my Aunt Agatha trotted out a few years back. It demonstrated that many apparent malapropisms arise from poor pronunciation rather than incorrect word choice.
‘Do you mind if I change the channel?’ Agatha asked. ‘I want to watch the tennis.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ said her husband. ‘Wimbledon finished a fortnight ago.’
‘Not that tennis, stupid,’ she retorted. ‘The three tennis. You know; the fat one and his Spanish mates.’
A little research informed me that these aural bloopers are known as mondegreens after misheard lyrics from a Scottish ballad in which the bad guys slew the Earl of Murray and ‘laid him on the green.’
Sometimes it’s the little absurdities of language usage that give us the laughs we so badly need in troubled times. Long live Mrs Malaprop and Lady Mondegreen.