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Howard Richler


Howard Richler is the author of The Dead Sea Scroll Palindromes, Global Mother Tongue: The Eight Flavours of English and, most recently, Can I Have a Word With You? by Ronsdale Press (2007).



I wrote Can I Have a Word With You? to convey the idea of the importance of the single word. The Gospel According to John begins with the advisory that “In the beginning was the word and the meaning of a single word is at the heart of many of our intellectual discussions. My book is comprised of 69 alphabetically-ordered entries that deal with some of the major semantic and sociological dimensions of words such as how words change meaning, political correctness and proper usage. As words are also a source of recreation for me, I have including several entries just for the fun of them. Here are three:

Writing some years ago in Maclean’s magazine, Anthony Wilson-Smith said that former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had a penchant for “cool,” tumbling from malaprop to misstep to outright muck-up.” Chrétien is guilty of charges two and three (in French as well as English) but I found no evidence supporting the allegation made by many commentator that he is guilty of committing multitudinous malapropisms. This is probably because the term “malapropism” tends to be misused. For example, on June 27, 2001, the Toronto Star titled an editorial “Mayor Malaprop” in describing the following infamous comment by former Toronto mayor Mel Lastman: “Why would I want to go to a place like Mombassa (Kenya)? . . . I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me."

A malapropism (or malaprop) is not any kind of a verbal gaffe but specifically an unintentional misuse of the wrong word. The Acoustical Society of America defines a malapropism as “a whole word that supplants an intended word,” and adds that the words involved in malapropisms are related to each other in the way that they sound but not in their meanings. Some examples of this phenomenon include saying “illegitimate” instead of “illiterate,” “monotony” instead of “monogamy,” and “octane” instead of “octave.” The Oxford Companion to the English Language dichotomizes between “classic malapropisms, in which the mistakes are due to ignorance, and cases when the speaker has inadvertently replaced the intended word by another.” These “confusables” have similar rhythms, such as “exhibition” and “expedition” or “competent” with “confident.”

The term derives from Mrs. Malaprop, mal a propos, (“inappropriate” in French), a character in Richard Sheridan`s 1775 play The Rivals who has a penchant for this type of gaffe. For example, she declares one man to be “as headstrong as an allegory on the Nile” (meaning alligator).

While the word “malapropism” was an eighteenth century invention, the concept predates this era. Shakespeare's comedies employ characters who stretch for a word but only reach a reasonable facsimile. In Much Ado About Nothing, Dogberry asks, “Who think you the most desertless man to be constable?” substituting “desertless” for “deserving.” Other gaffes in the play include confusing “sensible” with “senseless,” “comprehend” with “apprehend,” and “suspicious” with “auspicious.”

Although Chrétien hasn’t been guilty of any memorable malapropisms, other Canadian politicians have committed some howlers. John Kushner, a Calgary city councillor from 1976-86 was prone to these mistakes. He once said to a colleague, “Don't get your dandruff up” and once told an assemblage, “I’m not sure many of you can understand all this legal jargle.” Former Winnipeg City Councillor Slaw Rebchuck once insisted, “Let’s get that in black and writing.” Former Toronto mayor Allan Lamport said, “I deny the allegation, and I deny the alligators, “ and warned a group, “Keep this up and we’ll have a vicious triangle.”

Canadian newspapers have also been guilty of some howlers. For example, when Don Gillis, a highly-regarded dean of the New Brunswick legal community died in 2005, the provincial newspaper The Telegraph-Journal ran a large front page article chronicling his distinguished career. The article included quotes from several of the leading members of the New Brunswick bar who commented on Gillis’s accomplishments. One of the individuals quoted was Neil McKelvey, also a dean of the New Brunswick bar, and the Telegraph-Journal reporter who wrote the article when mentioning MCKelvey stated, “And the platitudes continued with Neil McKelvey . . . ” The word he should have used was plaudits not platitudes.

The master of the political malaprop, however, is George W. Bush. Bush’s “Bushisms,” aka “Bushspeak,” aka “Bushonics” have been satirized by a host of literate commentators. For example, Stanford linguist Geoff Nunberg stated that “Bush's malaprops can make him sound like someone who learned the language over a bad cell phone connection.”

Here’s a soupçon of some of Dubya’s malaprops:

-- “A tax cut is really one of the anecdotes to coming out of an economic illness.”

-- During “Perseverance Week” at a Nashua , New Hampshire, school he told children that to win an election, “you have to preserve. It takes a lot of preservation.”

-- Referring to rival Senator John McCain, he said, “He can’t take the high horse and then claim the low road.”

-- “My education message will resignate among all parents.”

-- “We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile.”

-- “We are making steadfast progress.”

-- “Other Republican candidates may retort to personal attacks and negative ads."

-- “How do you know if you don't measure if you have a system that simply suckles kids through.”

-- “Keep good relations with the Grecians.”

-- “They misunderestimated me.”

-- "There was no malfeance involved. This was an honest disagreement about.

accounting procedures. . . There was no malfeance, no attempt to hide anything."

-- “I don't need to be subliminable.”

Often cited as a malaprop is Bush’s statement, “I know what it’s like to put food on my family,” but being charitable by nature, I’ll give the President the benefit of the doubt and assume that he merely omitted some words.

Dubya may have come by his propensity for malaprops naturally. His Poppa announced to a crowd of 15,000 in Ridgefield, New Jersey, in 1992, that “I don’t want to run the risk of ruining what is a lovely recession.” This statement was topped in 1991 by Bush Senior’s Veep, Dan Quayle, who told a gathering that “Republicans understood the importance of bondage between mother and child.”

The humour in malaprops lies in the listener's awareness of the mistake and the speaker's ingenuousness. Malaprops make us feel superior for “we wouldn't commit such a gaffe -- or would we? It also helps if the replaced word lends a certain irony to the statement, as in replacing “bonding” with “bondage,” or “monogamy” with “monotony.” A friend related to me that his uncle once came into a stuffy room and demanded, “Open a window; I’m sophisticating!” Another friend mentioned to me recently that she grew up with someone very prone to malaprops who once averred, “When a child gets to a certain age the unbiblical cord must be severed.” A former business associate told me that after he gave a eulogy at a family funeral, his cousin told him “that was the most touching urology I’ve ever heard.” A friend told me that some years ago her daughter was commenting on a news item where some terrorists used gasoline bombs and referred to the ordnance as mazel-tov cocktails At times, it is the particular context of a blooper that makes us howl. A friend who is a history professor at McGill received a term paper from a student that dealt with relations between India and China. In it, the student wrote about the “wonton aggression of the Chinese.”

It is the very artlessness of malaprops that makes them endearing, and aside from the joy of hearing someone screw up, malaprops are entertaining because they reveal hidden connections between words.

What is frightening about the verbal fumbling of George W. Bush is that it has not prevented him from becoming President of the United States and being widely admired by many Americans. Linguist John McWhorter points out in his book Doing Our Own Thing that “candidates bite the dust for being untelegenic, dour, visible present-day philanderers, too strident, or looking silly posing in a tank -- but both Bushes show that having trouble rubbing a noun and a verb together is not considered a mark against one in applying for the leadership of the land.”

This will clearly not do. Or in the words of long-time Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley, we should strive for “greater platitudes of achievement.”

Knock, Knock.
Who’s there?
Sam and Janet
Sam and Janet who?
Sam and Janet evening, you may see a stranger.

As every puerile individual like me knows, some words and phrases resemble other words and phrases. In the above example, the tandem of “Sam and Janet” sounds like “Some enchanted.”

The French have raised this tendency to an art form by way of the holorime, a two-line poem in which both lines are pronounced identically but use different words:
“Par le bois de Djinn, ou s’entasse de l’effroi”
“Parle! Bois du gin, ou cent tasses de lait froid.”

This loosely translates as “When going through the Djinn woods, surrounded by so much fear, keep talking. Drink gin or a hundred cups of cold milk.”

Far less poetically, the English riddle – “How do you prove in three steps that a sheet of paper is a lazy dog?” also conveys how phrases can sound similar; the answer: 1) a sheet of paper is an ink-lined plane; 2) an inclined plane is a slope up; 3) a slow pup is a lazy dog.

Usually, however, the similarity of sounds is not contrived and we simply mishear phrases.

Growing up in the drug-hazed ‘60s, I pondered the identity of the enigmatic Leslie referenced in the popular song “Groovin” by the Young Rascals:

“You and me and Leslie”

Leslie, however, was a figment of my imagination, or more precisely of my imagined hearing. The lyric, I found out in later years, was “You and me endlessly.”

I had been “mondegreened.”

The term “mondegreen” was coined by writer Sylvia Wright. As a child she had heard the Scottish ballad “The Bonny Earl of Murra” which she interpreted thus:

Ye Highlands and Ye lowlands
Oh where hae you been?
They hae slay the Earl of Murray
And Lady Mondegreen.

Sylvia Wright was wrong in thinking that a double homicide had occurred. The “Lady Mondegreen” was a projection of her romantic imagination, for the last line in fact was not “Lady Mondegreen” but “laid him on the green.”

Children are particularly prone to this type of mistake, where an unfamiliar word or phrase is changed into something more familiar. This process has created some memorable “religious” personages such as “Round John Virgin” (instead of “round yon Virgin”), “Harold be thy name” (instead of “hallowed be thy name.” And “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear” (instead of “Gladly, the cross I’d bear”).

Many a familiar phrase has been mondegreened. A “dog eat dog” world has been rendered as a “doggy dog world”; “for all intents and purposes” has become “for all intensive purposes”; “duct tape” has turned into “duck tape”; and “no holds barred” has been phrased as “no holes barred.”

The majority of mondegreens seem to occur in the lyrics of songs. William Safire years ago cited an American grandmother who interpreted the Beatles’ lyric “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes” as “the girl with colitis goes by.” The lyric “Excuse me while I kiss the sky” from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” was interpreted by some as “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.” Hendrix was aware of this misinterpretation and sometimes during a performance he would help perpetuate the misunderstanding by kissing a male associate after saying the line.

The obscure lyrics and indistinct pronunciation of many songs facilitates misinterpretations. On a website dedicated to misheard lyrics, I noticed that in Sarah McLachlan’s "Building a Mystery," her lyric “you strut your rasta wear and a suicide poem” was interpreted as “you stretched your ass to where in a suicide home.” In the Aerosmith song "Dude Looks Like a Lady," the titled lyric is somewhat squealed and I interpreted the lyric as “Do the funky lady.” This website confirmed that I was not the only confused listener. Others had misheard this line as “Do the shockalayley,” “Do the rock-a lady” and “Doodoos like a lady.” When the lyrics to some songs are incomprehensible it is not surprising that mishearings occur. I haven’t the foggiest idea of the meaning of the lyric “Revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night” by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. Small wonder that someone heard this line as, “Wrapped up like a douche, another rumour in the night. ”

Some song lyrics are almost impossible to decipher. I suspect few people know that the lyric that follows “Willie and the Poor Boys are Playin’" (by Credence Clearwater Revival) is “bring a nickel tap your feet.” This lyric has been misheard as “singing pickles can’t be beat.” Also misinterpreted by this musical group is the lyric “there’s a bad moon on the rise” which has been heard as “there’s a bathroom on the right.” Unilingual troglodytes claim to have heard the Beatles’ “Michelle, ma belle, sont les mots qui vont tres bien ensemble, tres bien ensemble” as “Michelle, my bell, some day monkey play piano song, play piano song.”

Some mishearings are somewhat incredible. Dylan’s line -- “the answer my friend” -- in "Blowin’ in the Wind" has apparently been interpreted entomologically as “the ants are my friends”; Crystal Gayle song "Don’t it Make Your Brown Eyes Blue" was misheard as “Doughnuts Make Your Brown Eyes Blue” and at the aforementioned website somebody claims to have heard the lyric from Pink Floyd’s "Another Brick in the Wall," -- “no dark sarcasm in the classroom” -- as “no Dukes of Hazzard in the classroom.”

Stephen Pinker in The Language Instinct says that the “interesting thing about mondegreens is that the mis-hearings are generally less plausible than the intended lyrics. He relates the anecdote of a student who heard the Shocking Blue song "I’m Your Venus" as “I’m your penis” and thus was amazed that it wasn’t censored.

Some years ago my friend Norm was partaking in a traditional Friday night family dinner at the home of his parents. While trying to ingest a piece of bland tasting chicken, he blurted out to his mother, “Ma, don’t you believe in using condiments? ” To which, she replied, “Normy, we will not use smut around the dinner table.”

Around the same time, freelance journalist Harry Fleming wrote an article in the Canadian magazine Atlantic Insight. He stated that Donald Marshall, Jr., after having been incarcerated for 11 years for a murder he had not committed, “accepted the government’s niggardly offer of $270, 000.”

This comment drew the ire of Gillian D. Butler, the then chief adjudicator of the Human Rights Commission of the Newfoundland Justice Department. Ms. Butler felt the magazine should have been “sensitive enough to human-rights issues to have refused to publish the article in this form.” Fleming’s description of the said offer was too close to the n-word for Ms. Butler’s liking.

It was only a matter of time until somebody got hurt or, as linguist Steven Pinker phrased it in The New York Times on February 2, 1999, “niggardly” was “a disaster waiting to happen.”

Pinker designated the word as such because the month before Mayor Anthony Williams of Washington, D.C. accepted the resignation of David Howard, one of his worship’s top aides, Mr. Howard, a Caucasian, had the politically incorrect effrontery to also use the “n-word,” “niggardly,” in a meeting, thus offending an Afro-American colleague. Mr Howard had said, “ I will have to be niggardly with this fund because it’s not going to be a lot of money.”

“Niggardly” is an old English word meaning stingy or miserly, with no etymological connection to its similar-sounding racial epithet. The OED defines “niggard” as “a mean, stingy, or parsimonious person; a miser; one who grudgingly parts with or expends anything.” It says that “niggard” is of obscure etymology but that an “earlier synonym nigon, and the termination on both cases would normally indicate a French origin.” The OED’s earliest citation for “niggard is 1374. In Chaucer’s Troylus, a character states, “ So parfaite joye may no negarde have.”

Robert Hendrickson writing in Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins says that “so sensitive are people black and white to the use of nigger that the word niggardly (miserly) . . . is often avoided.” David Howard obviously wishes he had eschewed the use of the word. In a statement of contrition to the press he said, “I should have thought, this is an arcane word, and everyone may not know it.” Howard was about the only person who thought he had said something wrong. Even chairman of the NAACP, Julian Bond, said that the “precipitous acceptance of Howard’s resignation was niggardly on Williams’ part.” Eventually, Howard was reinstated but placed in a different department.

The phrase “politically correct” was coined in 1975 by Karen Decrow, the president of the National Organization of Women. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the phrase emerged in the context that we know it, and it took an overtly pejorative tone. Some people see the whole issue of “political correctness” as a veiled form of thought control. Others (such as Humpty Dumpty) counter that language is controlled anyway by dominant groups in society.

For those people who find terms such as cerebrally challenged too euphemistic, I remind them that it wasn’t that long ago that words like “cretin” and even “moron” were used in polite society without compunction. Given a choice, I’d rather be oversensitive than not sensitive enough. Increasingly, “ethnic” verbs such as “to welsh” (to avoid payment); “to gyp”(to cheat) and “to jew” (to bargain) are also avoided.

But where does it end? Are we supposed to avoid using the word “fatuous” when addressing the horizontally-challenged? If I say that I find a “penal institution (and pronounce the first word “penile”’) to be barbaric”, I’m sure there’s somebody out there who thinks I have cast aspersions on the practice of circumcision. If I use the word “pithy” will someone feel I’m mocking lispers? Must I avoid saying that I had a “whopping good time” when in the company of people of Italian extraction, “judicious” when among Jews, and “nervous titter” and “hoary bat” when in the company of women? Might “enigma” and “snigger” offend? Must everyone, except white Protestants, avoid “waspish comments?”

The mind boggles.

Title: Can I Have a Word with You?
Author: Howard Richler
Publisher: Ronsdale Press, 2007
ISBN: 1553800494 : 9781553800491

For more of Howard Richler at Arts & Opinion:
The Significant Other Conundrum

The Oxfordization of Poutine


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