Last week over dinner a friend was describing to me the past living arrangements of several family members, who for a period of time resided in the same building. The restaurant was noisy with the conversation of the dinner crowd and the clatter of dishes. “And then on the second floor there was Virgin Eddie …”
“Virgin Eddie? Why did you call him Virgin Eddie?” I inquired very politely, if not a bit uncomfortably.
“Virge and Eddie,” she corrected me, staring for a millisecond before we both slithered to the floor, guffawing as tears squirted from our eyes. After climbing back into our chairs and brushing crumbs from our clothing, we launched into a potential character sketch for an individual called Virgin Eddie. But that’s not the point here.
The critically important point here is that I had committed a malapropism, and certainly not my first. We’re all familiar with such trips of the tongue — those incorrect utterances of a term or phrase that bring on laughter, and in some contexts, public embarrassment. The Funk and Wagnalls dictionary defines malapropism as “the incorrect or inappropriate use of a word; a verbal blunder.”
The Wikipedia definition is a little more descriptive, capturing the auditory structure of the listener’s mis-heard message: “the use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical, often humorous utterance.” The word actually derives from a character in the 1775 comedy The Rivals, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Mrs. Malaprop, who frequently committed such auditory errors. Example: “Illiterate him quite from your memory,” rather than “Obliterate him quite from your memory.” (Wikipedia, 2014)
Linguists tell us that malapropisms are specific in their inaccurateness because they not only use the same part of speech as the word the speaker meant to say, but they even have the same auditory stress patterns as the desired term. Many malapropisms show up in prayers, anthems, or popular tunes. Consider the following:
“‘Scuse me while I kiss that guy.” Correct lyric: “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky.” (Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze)
In a Dick Van Dyke episode, Rob nervously tries to explain his own malapropism to Laura, his wife, to diffuse her budding jealously toward an actress who has attempted a pass at him:
“She kept saying, ‘Do you want to have an affairsillie?’ And I couldn’t figure out what an affairsillie was. And then I realized she was saying, ‘Do you want to have an affair, silly!”
Check out this lyric boo-boo:
“Scare a moose, scare a moose, will you do my fan Van Gogh?” Correct lyric: “Scaramouche, scaramouche, will you do the fandango?” (Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody)
Still, I think the most scrumptious malapropisms are spoken by children. (You knew this was coming.) Children call them as they hear them, as they are still learning to distinguish auditory subtleties in spoken language and to consider the context in which language exchanges are experienced.
My former faculty room mate tells a delightful anecdote about how as a young girl she was taught to respond when asked her name. Her mother taught her to say her full name. She came to respond in the same auditory pattern that it had been recited to her. So, whenever asked, she answered, “My name is Florenceethelbatt.” (Florence Ethel Batt)
My musician friend, the one I reference at the start of this essay, shared this one: “Miss D, What’s a ‘dawnzerly’?” Her students sing, “Oh say can you see, by the dawnzerly light,” in their rendition of Francis Scott Key’s Star Spangled Banner.
Another early childhood colleague recalls a typical error made in children’s reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance: ” … and to the republic, for Richard Stands.”
In addition to getting tripped up by words to national anthems, we have all probably mangled a prayer or two in our childhoods. Remember Bil Keane’s Family Circus cartoon?
And, as it is my self-appointed duty to be exacting in my exploration of our auditory missteps, I must include several more choice examples of children’s malapropisms, gleaned from the Mommyland.com web site. Grab a hanky … or something else.
“I kicked a squirrel and I liked it.” Correct lyric: “I kissed a girl and I liked it.” (Katie Perry, I Kissed a Girl)
“I got them boobs like Jagger!” Correct lyric: “I got them moves like Jagger.” (Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera, Moves Like Jagger)
“Waving your bladder all over the place.” Correct lyric: “Waving your banner all over the place.” (Queen, We Will Rock You)
“I throw my hands up in the air sometimes, saying A – O, Galileo!” Correct lyric: “I throw my hands up in the air sometimes, saying A – O, gotta let go!” (Taio Cruz, Dynamite)
“”I like big trucks and I cannot lie.” Correct lyric: “I like big butts and I cannot lie.” (Sir Mix-a-Lot, Baby Got Back)
“Since you let me down I’ve got owls poopin’ in my head.” Correct lyric: “Well, since she put me down I’ve been out doin’ in my head.” (The Beach Boys, Help Me Rhonda)
“Do a little dance, smack that duck, get down tonight.” Correct lyric: “Do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight.” (KC and the Sunshine Band, Get Down Tonight)
I would argue that the above malapropisms could actually serve a developmentally appropriate function in many early childhood classroom settings, given the ideas or concepts being explored. We early childhood folks are darn skilled at integrating concepts and curricular areas — it’s core to our training. After all, you must have an outlet for expressing feelings, a way to communicate your understanding of life science or space science concepts, a venue for sharing your early interest in engineering and specific modes of transportation …
So here’s to laughing at our auditory goofs and delighting in those of young children. Let’s all join hands and step out of our egos.
And, since we’ve all joined hands … it’s Circle Time! And Circle Time means Sharing! So, dear readers, it’s your turn to share your favorite malapropism.
I earnestly await the laughter wave.
My thanks to Nicki, Karen, and Flo, who graciously responded to my solicitations for contributions to this essay.