And Here’s to You, Mrs. Malaprop


Of all the writing mistakes people make, the malapropisms are my favorites. Defined loosely as “a comically inappropriate word or phrase,” the word derives from the French phrase ‘mal a propos’ and was lifted by Richard Sheridan for a character in his Restoration comedy, The Rivals. From British sitcom character Mrs. Slocum in Are You Being Served (“and I am unanimous about this”) through 1960’s nightclub comic Norm Crosby (“the misconstrued youths of America need heroes”) to 1970’s television antihero Archie Bunker (“Aw, Edith no one wants to hear about your visit to the groinocologist”), I have always loved characters who speak in malapropisms, which is good because Facebook comments sections have exposed that an enormous segment of the English speaking public does so.

Sometimes the malapropisms are the best things in the comment; certainly they are the wittiest and the most original. Many times they’re so funny I find myself bursting into laughter at a person I have never met.  A good malaprop always brightens my day, although, to be honest, many people’s writing more often contains mondegreens than malapropisms. (A mondegreen is a sort of aural malaprop that occurs when people mishear something – an aphorism or song lyrics – like the people who wonder about the homoeroticism of Jimi Hendrix because they think “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy” is a lyric in one of his most famous compositions.)

One of my favorite mondegreens came from a Goodreads book discussion a few years ago. To accompany the reading of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, the group appeared to be sharing their personal experiences with family interactions and generational clashes, prominent themes in the book. Several expressed sympathy for one character or another, based seemingly on exactly what about their own family’s dynamic upset them personally. Decrying her birth order, one youngest daughter of a large family wrote that she could understand Ashima’s reluctance to shop at garage sales because “I’m really tired of wearing my sister’s hammydowns.”

Hammydowns? Suddenly I had a vision of Lady Gaga’s meat dress, only made of delicate pink ham slices dotted with spicy, black, button-like cloves. For years this girl has apparently thought that the word for clothing passed from one child to another in a family is “hammydowns.” I bet that she’s heard it pronounced that way her entire life, but has never seen the phrase “hand-me-down” in print and wondered about its etymology. She trusts that her friends know what she means, regardless of how she says what she says.

When you consider this profound lack of attentiveness as the true source of the amusing errors, the situation leaps from comedy to tragedy.

It’s the profound lack of concern, the dearth of intellectual contemplation that really troubles me about my fellow citizens’ rhetoric. They don’t care if their writing contains careless errors. By this I don’t mean typos that all of us must proofread for or even fractured syntax as we stumble to find the perfect phrase to say what we think. No, I mean the total resistance to the mechanics of academics – the refusal to read closely and analyze, then write about, complex ideas.  Even worse, when someone corrects the errors, the original poster’s response is blind fury; accusations of “Who made you the grammar police?” and “You knew what I meant, so who cares?” fly across the screen. Everyone can apparently say whatever he or she wants, regardless of how illiterate, illogical, or poorly-written. Welcome to Post Modern life where just folks spit out thoughts in chunks – it’s the Murcan way, evidently – and only elitist, East Coast academics attempt to write with clarity.

Today I read that a New England Patriots player misspelled the team’s name on a pair of jeans he “designed.” Evidently, neither he nor the seamstress who embroidered the word noticed the error. That’s okay. We all knew what he meant. And when he’s done wearing the jeans, they’ll make a nice hammydown for his kids.






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