Malapropisms. The word itself makes my heart sing…so symmetrical and full of whimsy. But the concept is deadly.
What is a malapropism? Well, it came from a character named Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals. This character routinely mistook one word for another, and the resulting language was pretty comical. When the average person uses a malapropism in speech or writing, the result is typically high hilarity and a severe dip in his/her “take me seriously” quotient. Usually, a malapropism is used because it sounds a lot like the correct word. Witness:
The priest turned to the couple and asked the bride, “Do you take Herbert to be your loftily wedded husband?”
“You’ve got to help me get these people to act,” said the middle manager. “They won’t budge. The problem is, they don’t understand the brevity of the situation.”
Malapropisms are a blast to read, mostly because you can sit back in your bathtub or office chair and feel superior. But when you’re the writer of one of these zingers, you will never, ever live it down. Trust me. Your credibility has just been hosed. People will talk about you at cocktail parties for years to come. They will quote you the way some people quote scripture or Yogi Berra (who was a master of malapropisms). You will gain the kind of fame that Mickey Rourke and Dan Quayle enjoyed.
Here are some famous examples:
“It is beyond my apprehension.” – Danny Ozark, baseball team manager
This one isn’t exactly incorrect, because “apprehension” also means “understanding.” It’s a malapropism because the idiomatic expression is “It is beyond my comprehension.”
“And then he [Mike Tyson] will have only channel vision.” – Frank Bruno, boxer
Of course, the phrase is “tunnel vision.” But I like the fact that he mixed up “channel” and “tunnel.” Maybe they should change the phrase to “chunnel vision” in honor of the Channel Tunnel…
“Cardial — as in cardial arrest.” – Eve Pollard
This is the worst kind of malapropism — where the speaker/writer just plain makes up a word that doesn’t exist.
“The police are not here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder.” – Richard Daley, former Chicago mayor
This is a classic case of “misspeaking” ala Hillary Clinton. Okay, maybe it’s not quite the same. There are no Bosnian bullets exploding turf at Daley’s feet here.
“Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.” – Dan Quayle, Vice President
This is probably not only a malapropism, but a bit of Freudian slippage as well.
Here’s my point: consult your dictionary. Use the wonderful www.dictionary.com, which will help keep you on the path of righteousness. Sure, brevity and gravity sound a lot alike. But they mean very different things.