Chuck Ayres, the cartoonist responsible for the comic strip Crankshaft, has fun with the irascible Ed Crankshaft’s language shortcomings. Ed often joins parts of two separate sayings into one unbelievable sentence, for example, “Don’t change horses if you can’t make it drink.”
Crankshaft also habitually misuses words. That is, he suffers from “malapropism.”
Mrs. Malaprop was a character in The Rivals, a play by English playwright, Richard Sheridan (1751-1816). She regularly substituted a similar-sounding word for the one actually intended. Sheridan took Mrs. Malaprop’s name from the French term, mal à propos (inappropriate).
People use malapropisms when they haven’t fully heard or understood some word. They take a stab at using it anyway by selecting some other word that “sounds right.”
Malapropism is sometimes called “slip of the tongue,” “Freudian slip,” or “parapraxis.” Originally, Freudian slips referred to slips that related to something sexual. Today, we use it for any slip of the tongue.
Enjoy these malapropisms: “Jack was a civil serpent.” “Karen has extra-century perception.” “Early settlers in Canada’s west often got cabinet fever.”
Other unintentional speech mishaps occur when a sentence is incorrectly worded, causing an unintended meaning. It happens to the best of us.
English essayist, Charles Lamb (1775-1834), was a stutterer. Once, he was asked to say a table grace at a dinner party. After scanning all the other guests, he asked, “Is there no c-c-c-clergyman present?” “No sir,” he was told. “Then let us thank the Lord,” Lamb said, bowing his head.
Former U.S. Vice-president, Hubert H. Humphrey, once said, “No sane person likes the war in Vietnam, and neither does President Johnson.”
Such accidental humour occurs in publications of every kind — magazines, newspapers, bulletin board notices, posters, ads, and nowadays in e-mails.
An English bishop received the following e-mail from the vicar of a village church in his diocese: “My Lord, I regret to inform you of the death of my wife. Can you possibly send a substitute for the weekend?”
This ad once appeared in the Toronto Star: “A young woman wants washing and cleaning up daily.”
Church bulletins are notorious for similar funny errors, such as these:
• “Congratulations to Mr. Haverstock recently elected elder because we could not find a better man.”
• “The Over-60s Choir will be disbanded for the summer with the thanks of the entire congregation.”
• “Support your parish rummage sale — a good chance to get rid of things not worth keeping but too good to throw away. Bring your husband.”
The same kind of wording accident appears often on signs. Here’s one from a service station marquée: “Eat here and get gas.”
And in a Nova Scotia travel agency window: “Don’t take a chance on ruining your vacation — come to us and be sure.”
Oxford labels language mishaps of this sort, “assemblage errors.” That’s because some elements of the sentence are either in the wrong order, or don’t belong there at all. Another handy term is “word salad,” coined in 1910 to describe incomprehensible, confusing English.