“I’m uphauled!” read the note. “Anyone with a social conscious would be ashamed. People are always ready to blame things on an escape goat, but for all intensive purposes, it’s a doggy-dog world out there. The underline meaning is clear, but don’t take a fence; this is just my too cents worth. Anyway it’s a mute point.”
Mute indeed! And yet it speaks volumes.
The word “malaprop” became accepted as a noun around 1823. It derives from a 1775 play, “The Rivals,” by R. B. Sheridan, which featured a character called Mrs. Malaprop. The word has come to mean misapplication of a word for one with similar sound or meaning. In Sheridan’s play, Mrs. Malaprop says of her daughter:
“I would have her instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious countries …. Our retrospection will now be all to the future…. [There is] suicide, paracide and simulation going on in the fields! And Sir Anthony not to be found to prevent the antistrophe.”
Memorable malaprops from people in public life include “polo bears,” “Remember Pearl Island,” “neon stockings,” “vertizontal hold,” “desecrating on the American flag,” and “a vast suppository of information.” The guy who said that last one malapropped his retraction, confessing to a “Miss-Marpleism.”
In the late ‘70s, a lawyer sent me his resume, referring to it as his “biological information.” But, and you can trust me on this, he was being intentionally wry; thus, was his way, may he rest in peace.
In her essay “We Have Burned Our Britches Behind Us,” Patricia McRaven tells of a memo that read, “You shouldn’t drink alcohol because ... it gives you psoriasis of the liver.” And of a public transportation customer who “likes to stay on the bus until I reach my destiny.” She tells of a friend who’d “read all of Shakespeare’s books” and liked “the poetry of Edgar Allen Pope.”
A repeating theme on “All in the Family” was Archie Bunker’s calling a certain pastor “Reverend Fletcher.” After which someone, usually Edith, would always say, “Felcher!” To which Archie would reply, “Whatever.”
There was one episode in which Archie did this several times to the pastor himself. Each time the pastor would politely correct Archie, only to hear the same reply, “Whatever.” The scene concluded with Rev. Felcher calling Archie “Mr. Binker.” After which Archie was the one calling for a correction: “Uh, Bunker.” To which the reverend emphatically said, “Whatever!”
Speaking of reverends, a correspondent who chooses anonymity sent me something years ago, which I shall allow to speak for itself:
“For years I have collected the malapropisms of my pastor, who talks faster than he thinks. I never see anybody else laughing, so I must be the only one who catches them. The context is usually biblical …:
“The sick and the maim;
“The crutch of the message;
“He had a hot flash from heaven;
“A piece of wood with leather thongs;
“Jerusalem, the pupil of God’s eye; … and
“Take off your feet, for you are standing on holy ground.”
More next week. Feel free to pitch in.
Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.