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The Scrivener: Let's Walk About Turds

Brian Barratt muses upon malapropisms, spoonerisms, and other confusions, manglings and distortions of that most splendid edifice, the English language.

To read more of Brian’s glorious excursions into words please click on The Scrivener in the menu on this page. And do visit his stimulating Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

Many years ago, a teacher told me that she had taught her small daughter the correct terms for body parts. One day, she had to visit the doctor for a gynaecological examination. The tiny girl had to sit in the waiting room, and became fidgety. She peered through the surgery door, saw what was happening, and loudly asked, ‘What are you doing to my Mummy’s vulgar?’

If an adult had said that, it would have been a Freudian slip, the unwitting association of two sex-related terms. The girl was too young for that, so we must put it into the category of a malapropism. That term comes from the name of Mrs Malaprop, a character in Sheridan’s play The Rivals, who came out with phrases like ‘He is the very pineapple [pinnacle] of politeness’.

The finest malapropism I’ve heard first-hand came from the mouth of an elderly lady who was concerned about the growth of nasal hairs. She asked me, ‘Can you have them removed by Electrolux?’

About 100 years after Sheridan, a certain reverend gentleman taught at Oxford University. Mr Spooner didn’t utter malapropisms, but he often confused the first letters of words in a sentence.

* ‘The Lord is a shoving leopard [loving shepherd]’.

* ‘You have hissed all my mystery lectures [missed all my history lectures]’.

And so we have spoonerisms, which are a source of great fun, particularly because you can invent them as a party game. I think my first (unwitting) spoonerism came out when I was about 9, and I told my mother that I was sheening my clues.
There is lesser known form of word confusion known as wellerisms. They are named after Sam Weller, the character in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, who uttered statements such as:

* ‘Anythin’ for a quiet life, as the man said wen he took the sitivation at the lighthouse’

* ‘A wictim o’ connubiality, as Blue Beard’s domestic chaplain said, with a tear of pity, ven he buried him’.

The most common wellerism has become a cliché. It ends with ‘...as the actress said to the bishop’. (You can fill in the first bit for yourself.) Puns abound, as in ‘We’ll have to rehearse that, as the undertaker said when the coffin fell out of the car’.

Writers as well as speakers must beware of confusibles, words which might sound alike or look alike but have completely different meanings. Some examples:

* disinterested means impartial, but uninterested means boredom, lack of any interest.

* it’s is a shortened form of ‘it is’, but its is possessive, meaning ‘belonging to it’. This confusible is almost as rampant as the universal misunderstanding that you’re is short for ‘you are’, and your means ‘belonging to you’.

* noisy means making a lot of noise, but noisome means offensive, disgusting.

* sewerage refers to the system of pipes by which sewage is taken away.

Oh, by the way, may I add that I enjoy etymology but know very little about insects?

Copyright © Brian Barratt 2003, 2007


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