Friday, 12 June 2015

Playing with words

"Malla what, mate?" would no doubt be the response from your average spotty teenager should you attempt to engage him in a conversation about malapropisms. Admittedly it's not one of the most attractive words in the English dictionary; and not one that does justice to such a comic slip of the tongue.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, let me elucidate: a malapropism according to the Oxford English Dictionary is the unintentional misuse of a word by confusion with one of similar sound.

It just so happens that over the years I've heard my fair share of malapropisms, and I have to say that they nearly always make me smile.

My grandmother was something of a dab-hand in this department. She would inadvertently produce some absolute corkers on a whim, but the only ones I can recall now were those she'd use on a fairly regular basis. I can hear her now saying that she had had a particularly good night and had "slept like a toff." I'm not entirely sure how your average toff snoozes, but it used to conjure up all kinds of weird and wonderful images in my young head.

On having her small garden paved with crazy paving (as was the fashion back in the early 70s), she would proudly open her kitchen door and invite her guests to admire her "crazy pavement."

I also had an uncle who was a prolific exponent of the art. One of his most memorable verbal slips has gone down in family lore. For all the years I had known him, this particular uncle had always sported a toupée, and on one occasion was asked by an inquisitive work colleague how he managed to keep his hair piece in place. "Oh, it's very easy really," came my uncle's confident response, "I have a special fixative which I simply apply to my foreskin." I imagine that must have brought a few tears to his eyes.

Then, of course, there are those deliberately contrived malapropisms. Lillian Jacobs, my parents'  manic and highly eccentric neighbour should have been a professional stand-up comedian. She would deliberately and quite brilliantly construct her sentences with wonderfully ludicrous malopropisms and deliver them in an absurdly comic falsetto voice. I can almost hear her now: "Annette, I can't tell you how moved I was. I was overcome with emulsion." Like some of our most gifted comedians, she was also completely bonkers - harbouring a genuine and totally irrational fear of thunderstorms. At the merest hint of an impending storm, she would knock on our door and hide in our broom cupboard until the storm had passed; at which point we'd have to knock on the cupboard door to give her the all-clear.

In the 80s I was very fortunate to work for an advertising agency whose Creative Director was the verbally dexterous Ken Mullen. As the only advertising copywriter to be quoted in the Penguin Book of Modern Quotations, Ken is a master at creating ingenious malapropisms. On one occasion he described a rather verbose senior member of staff who was occasionally hired by the glitterati as an interior decorator, as the agency's "internal defecator." And on suffering a torturous meeting with two clients who weren't perhaps the sharpest knives in the drawer, he later described the experience as "stalling between two fools."*

* To be a tad anal, this particular line can be more accurately defined as a spoonerism where a pair of vowels or consonants are interchanged for comic effect.

Alex Pearl is author of Sleeping with the Blackbirds 

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