2002.08.14 Malapropriating makes for good conversations

Written by David Green.


Whenever we visit our friend Kate I always return home rejuvenated. It’s not just the delicious and nutritious food Kate serves us fresh from her garden or the clean country air blowing off Lake Michigan. Usually I return with a new way of looking at the world—or an innovative use of beets.

This time Kate asked if I’d heard of the book Sink Reflections. I thought she was saying “Sync” and figured it might be an esoteric philosophical treatise about meshing lofty ideals with the brutal reality of life: getting “in sync.” But no, this book is about scrubbing the kitchen sink—the first plan of attack in getting your house clean and uncluttered. (There’s lots more, go to www.flylady.net.)

Anyway, I spent my vacation reading this book and anticipating my return home so I could attack my house. The endeavor only lasted one day, but during one decluttering session, I did come across a slip of paper on which a couple of years ago I had recorded stories my cousin Cathy told me about my uncle Ronnie, who apparently has a tendency to mangle words. I’ve never witnessed any of these malapropisms, but I can certainly empathize with Uncle Ronnie if what Cathy says is true.

My dictionary says malapropism comes from the character Mrs. Malaprop who was noted for her misuse of words in R. B. Sheridan’s comedy, The Rivals, in 1775. It’s “a humorous misapplication of a word: specifically, use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context.” The dictionary gives this example: “an allegory on the banks of the Nile” which I didn’t find funny even after I finally got it (I think) after several minutes of deep thought. My guess is “allegory” is meant to be “alligator.”

I wrote down five examples of Uncle Ronnie’s malapropisms but I can probably only repeat three of them here and they aren’t the funniest ones. Once he was explaining the cause of his mother’s death. “My mother died of a cerebral hemorrhoid,” he said.

Another time he was playing tennis with his 10-year-old niece who is usually an excellent, high-spirited player. Ronnie was commenting on the lack of energy in her game. “She seems very logistic today,” he said, meaning lethargic.

When talking about the sick father of a friend, he was commiserating with the sorry state of affairs regarding the future of the man and his troublesome lungs. “Would you want to live on a vibrator for the rest of your life?”

At work one day, he encountered a man and woman fighting. The argument was getting rather heated so Uncle Ronnie called the police. “We have an alteration here,” he told the perplexed officer.

He was with friends eating breakfast another time. The discussion turned to insects and how they seemed to have no purpose. “But there is a purpose,” argued Uncle Ronnie. “They eat orgasms.” He meant to say, of course, “organisms” but as my cousin Cathy said, “Maureen nearly choked on her breakfast when he said that.”

Ah, out of the mouths of uncles...I just love it.

And my Uncle Ronnie. He is by far my favorite uncle even though he arrived on the scene when I was already grown up. He’s married to my god-mother, Aunt Mary, and like she, he exudes niceness and genuiness and welcomes people with open arms, plus, he has a big Italian heart. He’s intelligent and well read and knows exactly what he meant to say and the meaning of the words.

But sometimes these things slip out and you don’t even know it. Sometimes there’s that flicker of awareness when you hear yourself say the wrong thing and catch yourself in time to make the correction. But just as often you have to be willing to admit that when someone looks at you kind of quizzically when you’re certain you said the right thing that perhaps you didn’t.

We were listening to Car Talk on National Public Radio Sunday and Tom and Ray slipped in a segment called “God knows what kids are thinking” compiled by Neal Jackson. They rattled off a list of things kids have said on religious matters.

Jesus enunciated the Golden Rule, which says to do one to others before they do one to you.

The epistles were the wives of the apostles.

St. Paul cavorted to Christianity. He preached holy acrimony, which is another name for marriage.

Most religions teach us to have only one spouse. This is called monotony.

And that’s what life would be if we didn’t have people like Uncle Ronnie spicing it up for us.

        – Aug. 14, 2002
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