Saturday, 26 August 2006

For your delight

‘He is the very pineapple of politeness!’ says Mrs Malaprop of another character in The Rivals, the play they both inhabit, as it were. She’s one of Sheridan’s most delightful and enduring creations. Many have emulated her speech since she first appeared on the stage and we have all met at least one person who deserves to be nicknamed after her. If you do not know a Mrs Malaprop I can give you directions to one who lights up the blogosphere with her special kind of linguistic magic practically daily and never fails to make me chuckle or hoot with laughter.

In the meantime, here is a wonderful article on the subject by Jeanette Winterson, the author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (her only readable book, in my opinion, but that’s another story):

‘Communicating with the dead is risky, especially on constipated ground’
by Jeanette Winterson (The Times, June 2006)

My column on damp squids and holly reefs and other howling etymologies seems to have delighted Times readers enough to send in stacks of their own. In the way of things, I was also bereted by two readers, indeed made into something of an escaped goat, for being sufficiently unfamiliar with the English language to imagine there was such a thing as a damp squid.

Now that I am also the Big Brother household’s favourite read, I shall no doubt suffer the fate of a previous contestant who thought East Angular was a sovereign state somewhere near China.

This is the sort of thing to drive anyone stark raven mad, or indeed to turn this whole column into a bit of a wild elephant. The only thing for it will be to drive off in my hunchback car and get a bit of aquapuncture.

Food seems to offer rich pickings for howlers: a fast-food joint in Singapore calls itself ‘Sudden Food’, but if that has crept up on you too quickly, have pity on the lady still searching for the recipe for Ends Meat, as in ‘I don’t know how I am going to make ends meet’. For the ladies’ man, Damsel Jam seems too good to miss and, for those who want to eat modestly, there is always the microway.

Other readers have been astonished at menu recommendations for Acid spumante (I cannot comment for legal reasons), banana spit, and home-made shepherd’s bush. At a wedding buffet recently, guests were met with Sausage Rolls, followed by Profit Rolls, or elsewhere, Prophetic Rolls, the kind of food, I imagine, that warns you of exactly how ill you are going to be by bedtime.

On the other hand, prophetic rolls might be just the thing to use to strike a happy medium, though why, as our reader inquires, we should wish our psychic friends to be unhappy, or indeed strike them when they are not, remains unclear.

Communicating with the dead is obviously a risky business, especially as they might be buried in constipated ground or, as the Countess of Harewood kindly suggested, have too hastily signed over their Power of Eternity.

One husband told me that his wife likes to say: ‘'If my mother were alive now, she’d turn in her grave.’ I know that’s not quite a fake etymology, but I include it, along with ‘my words fell on stony ears’. This must be close to bear-faced cheek, which might be a relative of the moveable beast, as in ‘Easter is a moveable beast — it all depends on when the hens start laying’.

I feel very sorry for the child who nearly choked on his biblical cord, and for the gentleman who feels ‘out on a limbo’. I think we have all felt out on a limbo sometimes, perhaps especially the lady who ‘has a milestone round her neck’.

I was sent a delicious little book, entitled A Decapitated Coffee, Please. This is a truly bonkers collection of malapropisms and misnomers, lovingly brought together by Des MacHale, and published by a little Irish publisher in Cork called Mercier Press.

Anyone out there — and it seems like most of you — who revels in our linguistic glories should get hold of this book. It is the kind of thing to keep in the loo — which, incidently, to correct one of my readers, doesn’t come from regardez vous, as the night-pail was sloshed out of the window, but from gardez-l’eau, indeed as the posh French chambermaids emptied their posh French chamberpots. Needless to say, the non-French less posh were soon copying the idea and mispronouncing it as Gardy-Loo. It is a bit like our friend San Fairy Ann, who I am told, has a sister called Fairy Nuff.

Anyway, the little book is perfect for the loo, and will cheer you up on those gloomy days when you are feeling a bit down in the mouse, presumably the mouse-hole, which I see is really a mouse-all, because that’s where all the mice live.

A couple of my favourites from the book are: ‘You could have knocked me down with a fender.’ And: ‘Now that I have read a book about Swedish sex, I know where my volvo is.’

Mrs Winterson used to talk about an interfering madam she disliked as a ‘proper Cleopatra’. On further inquiry I discovered she had ‘a rod up her asp’.When I asked what this meant, Mrs Winterson replied: ‘She won’t let sleeping snakes lie.’

Language deserves respect. Anyone who mangles it ought to be slapped.

Update (27 August): A word of caution: if you’re one of those unfortunate people for whom words mean nothing and who couldn’t care less about them but who still insist on writing, be very careful. Using a spellchecker doesn’t help: it doesn’t have a brain and will choose any word that resembles the one you can’t spell and produce a sentence that doesn’t make any more sense than the one you wrote originally. It will be much funnier, though.


  1. Oh, goody! Can you give me directions, please?

  2. Well, L, just write the following URL in the address box of your browser: http://... No, I don't think I can, after all. ;-)

  3. I care about words and being articulate, but I am terribly sleepy lately. You know you are definitely sleep deprived when you misspell the name you use on a Blog :) Thus I suppose I will provide comic relief for some ;-).

    I happen to like this Blog,it's intelligent and funny and at times-Wondefully irreverant. I know there are understanding people.I think most people have a sense of humor, which is a Godsend when you are sleep deprived, all too human and make silly mistakes ;-)

  4. Poor tired T! (Register with Blogger: you will never have to write your own name again, LOL!).

    Thank you for all the compliments, but, hang on a sec, did you think I meant this blog? Nope.:-D

  5. Should I gather from your reaction, M, that you've encountered that singularly clumsy and uninspired blogger before? ;-)

  6. No thanks on the Blogger Bela, I am too "Internet Addicted" as it is ;-).

    No, I did not mean This particular Blog, I think that the women here are more mature than that. Pettiness and no humor-Wouldn't even bother to write on that kind of Blog.

    I am just Way Too Hard On myself, not on Others though ;-) I basically cut people a Lot of Slack. Need to be as kind to myself. Thank you for you maturity and understanding J. Insomnia is a Bitch ;-)

  7. T, registering with Blogger has no strings attached: it just enables you to post comments without having to write your name in every time. That's all. I'm sure it wouldn't make you read more blogs than before.

    Oh, good! I was frantically looking around to try and see any malapropism I might have been guilty of.

    Yes, you are - too hard on yourself. Be kind to Tinkerbelle. :-)

  8. I love -- LOVE -- malapropisms, especially when they create new meanings. So humorous. I'm constantly reminding myself to record them when they appear in student papers, but it seems I always forget.

    My MIL has a friend who is the queen of malapropism. She's an educated, middle-aged woman so you think she'd know better, but her brain got locked into position with certain words, and there's no downshifting. Witness:

    fantasize = phantomsize

    Rats -- *tugging at hair* -- I can't remember any of the others now but she's got a bunch. I'll have to ask.

    My FIL says "irregardless," which drives me up a wall. My father used to grit his teeth whenever one of his kids would say "these ones" because he maintained that it was redundant: "these" suffices.

    Then there's the opposite problem, that of finding out that you have been committing linguistic sins because everybody else commits them, and being torn as a result of your new knowledge. Do you keep pronouncing it THAT way or do you pronounce it the CORRECT way even though no one else does? When I first learned that "short lived" was correctly pronounced with a hard I (as in, possessing a short LIFE), my panties got all in a bunch. The dictionary lists the common pronunciation, with a short i, as acceptable, because that's how almost everyone says it. I can't bring myself to say it either way now. I just stick to synonyms like "fleeting" and "evanescent." My grandfather, whose favorite saying was "I'd rather be right than president," would be disappointed in my wimpery.

  9. I hate it when people missspell.

  10. But people getting menu items wrong can be a great source of joy. I had a rotten business trip to Nairobi once, some years ago, and treasure the memory of discovering that my hotel was offering for dinner that well-known Dutch/Indonesian treat Nazi Goering.

  11. I enjoy malapropisms too, WW, but not when their author is someone who prides themselves on being able to write well.

    I like phantomsize very much; I might start using it myself.

    I was stunned when I read what you wrote about 'short-lived'. Perhaps it's an American thing. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary mentions the pronunciation with a diphthong as an alternative to 'livd' (with a short 'i'), not as the main, correct pronunciation. Short-laivd doesn't make sense to me: the past tense of 'to live' is pronounced 'livd', why should it be different when 'lived' is used in a compound adjective? *puzzled*

    I absolutely agree with your grandfather. :-)

    As a Pope, B XVI, you don't have to worry too much: you have people who write your bulls for you, haven't you? ;-)

    You coined that one yourself, T, didn't you? Go on, admit it! It's wonderful. Thanks for the laugh.

  12. Are you talking to me, Bela? If so I swear that's how they spelled Nasi Goreng. I swear it, I really do.

  13. I was, yes, Tony. I've been to your blog: you're a clever man (hope this doesn't sound patronizing and you're not asking yourself, 'How can she tell?' LOL!) and I truly thought you'd invented that malapropism. It's still wonderful. :-)

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