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Malapropisms

”If I could drop dead right now, I’d be the happiest man alive.”

We moved to New Jersey from the Midwest the year I turned twelve. One of the first great discoveries was that there were way more channels on television in Jersey than in Cleveland. In fact, where we lived one could pick up stations from both New York and Philadelphia, so we had something airing on nearly number of the dial, a pretty good score in the mid-Sixties. One station seemed to air continuous movie fare, much like many cable channels today. We watched House On Haunted Hill about ten times in one week.

There were also shows that we’d never heard of or seen before. One of these was The Bowery Boys, in vivid black and white. What I remember about the show was a character who butchered the English language by using the wrong words in place of correct words. What I didn’t know was that there’s a word for what he was doing. That word was malapropism.

One web dictionary defines it this way….

malapropism: the usually unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase; especially the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context.

The definition is clumsy, and in the case of The Bowery Boys inaccurate. That is, the character (played by Horace Debussy Jones) may have been misusing and abusing words unintentionally, but the screenwriter was very deliberate in putting such words in his mouth.The word itself has a similar origin, a play by Richard Sheridan in which one of the characters is a Mrs. Malaprop who goes about butchering words to great effect. For example, “He is the very pineapple of politeness.” (Intending to say pinnacle.) “He’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” (Intending alligator.) Shakespeare, too, even used the twisted unintentional word for comic effect.

The Twentieth century has produced its share of witty wordsmiths in this category, not the least of which is the great Yogi Berra. While surfing for additional material for this page I discovered that Samuel Goldwyn was likewise an excellent malaproper. Here are a few of the lines he’s known to have concocted.

“A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

“Gentlemen, include me out.”

“If I could drop dead right now, I’d be the happiest man alive.”

“Too caustic? To hell with the cost. If it’s a good picture, we’ll make it.”

“I read part of it all the way through.”

“Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined.”

“I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth, even if it costs them their jobs.”

“I never put on a pair of shoes until I’ve worn them at least five years.”

“Spare no expense to save money on this one.”

“The scene is dull. Tell him to put more life into his dying.”

I myself have been guilty of a few unintended mixed metaphors. Not sure what to call that. Malappropriate? I spent years saying things like “He’s a little green behind the ears,” not knowing that the right phrase is wet behind the ears, or that maybe he’s a greenhorn.

My grandfather was good for a few of those as well, but he knew exactly what he was doing. You could see it by the twinkle in his eye.

If anything on this page makes you smile, smile big. No need for standing ovations, but a clap now and then is always welcome.


Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com 
Illustration at top of page, John Heino Photography. Used with permission.