In Sheridan’s 18th Century play, The Rivals, a character named Mrs. Malaprop constantly used similar-sounding but incorrect words, often with humorous results: “I must crash a check”; “It’s my term to make them play,” and that sort of thing. Words misused in this way have become known as malapropisms after this hilarious character.
Malapropisms, along with other kinds of misuses of words, like the recently-named eggcorns, mondegreens (mis-heard lyrics), mixed metaphors and the like are found everywhere–especially in the verbiage of politicians, celebrities, and the sports world. I don’t think this is because they’re more prone to it; they’re just more likely to have their utterances taped and re-broadcast for the world to see than are you or me. And, they’re often put on the spot and asked to respond to questions suddenly, or make their living talking a lot in public places.
Former mayor of Chicago Richard Daley was well-known for mis-speaking, as was (infamously) Yogi Berra, who practically made it an art form with sayings like “If you come to a fork in the road, take it,” and “You should always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise, they won’t come to yours.” His particular brand of word usage became known as Yogi-isms.
My daughter was saying over the holidays that for the longest time she used the word “vestibule” when she was describing what actually was a container (like the vestibule for water in the coffeemaker). We thought about it and figured it might’ve been an early confusion with the word “vessel” but that was as close as we could get. And besides we were all laughing too hard to actually think anything through (her included).
A colleague of mine contributed this example of a mixed metaphor. “English is my second language, so I may be particularly sensitive to misuse. I am constantly correcting my mom, but she appreciates it. And I am often corrected on misusing idioms, like saying “let’s get this popsicle stand on the road.” I don’t know if you’ve seen the YouTube videos of Benedict Cumberbatch not being able to pronounce penguin on a nature show he voiced over, but it’s hilarious!”
Indeed I have seen them, and they’re so priceless I had to include the shortest sample in here…I’m not sure exactly what category this falls under…I’m thinking it’s its very own. These are 18 hilarious seconds…
The Delicate Dilemma
A fellow word nerd and I were talking recently about how difficult it is for people like us, who make our living from using the written word and spoken language, to bite our tongues and not correct people when they misuse or mispronounce words (different, but equally funny/painful issues).
My theory is that we who have such an intimate thinking and working relationship with words are blessed and cursed with bigger vocabularies and curiosity about words and their usage than the average person. So when we’re not sure of a word pronunciation or usage we are likely to look it up before we use it in public, because we’re curious and because we value using exactly the right word in a given situation. We like expressing ourselves clearly. It’s a thing with us. Not so much with the rest of the world, who appears to get on just fine with getting it more or less right, more or less of the time.
If you do correct someone, you are very likely to be ridiculed for being a geek, a prude, or even mean, when really what you are is correct, as opposed to incorrect. To me there’s no emotion around it; it just is. I think it’s hilarious when I misuse or mispronounce a word and someone clues me in. I love the phrase when we know better, we do better. But I’m also painfully aware of the phrase Do you want to be right, or happy? There are definitely people you don’t want to correct, and situations you probably don’t want to correct people in (like public ones).
Unless you’re Inigo Montoya and you’re in the Princess Bride, however. One of his most famous lines was, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” The word was inconceivable, which Vizzini kept using to describe things he was seeing happen, like the Man in Black climbing up the cliffs.
Another helpful life phrase I’ve come to embrace is “say what you mean and mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.” Surely there’s a time and a place and a way to correct people for their good. (I don’t care that you pronounce a common word wrong, but the boss you’re interviewing with for that new job next week might.) If a little nudge saves you from other people thinking you’re an idiot (which you’re not), you might appreciate being corrected in a nice way.
It’s not about intelligence, or even mostly about education (though that does play a significant role). We all do it, no matter how smart or well educated we are. I believe it’s more about the fact that the English language with all its dialects, idioms, slang, and rampant instances of one word meaning many things means that you have to really study and give a flip to be correct most of the time. I think it’s just a damned hard language to learn and to use, though this is a hotly debated issue.
Here are some ideas we came up with from our brainstorming about whether to correct, or not to correct, and if you do, what to consider.
- First, never attempt to correct someone if you’re not certain what you think is correct actually is. Oops!
- Keep your good manners intact. Making fun of someone for misusing a word or phrase is never cool, whether in public or private. Golden rule, man.
- If it’s someone you interact with frequently, like a work colleague, or a family member, ask them in general if they’d rather know or not know if they mispronounce or misuse words. It’s a polite and respectful way to know if your help is wanted or needed. If they say, ummm….no, then respect that. If they respond positively, then next time you hear something that is a frequent mis-utterance, take the opportunity to let them in on the correct version…nicely.
- If you’re not sure of your own word usage, check out some of these lists of the most common misuses – maybe you’ll be able to correct yourself. 🙂 And here’s another one, just for good measure.