It was my first visit to Agra, and I had my grandchildren with me. They were thrilled to be there and listened to the commentary given by the tourist guide. The guides in Agra, I found, were eloquent, proficient at their job, and quite entertaining. Pointing to the Taj Mahal, my guide said, “In those days, there were threats from enemies, and steps were taken for protection. The turrets were covered with camel flesh, and that deterred the enemies from targeting the structure.”
We wondered how they could find camels in Agra to provide them with the required quantity of flesh. A few hours later, it dawned on us that what he was trying to say was camouflage, not camel flesh. That gave me an authentic example of malapropism in action. What, then, is malapropism?
In a play named The Rivals by Richard B. Sheridan, there is a character named Mrs Malaprop, who constantly uses words that do not fit the context, but often resemble ones that do. She comes up with sentences like “He is the very pineapple of politeness (pinnacle)” and “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile (alligator).” French mal a propos means inappropriate.
When a patient complains of his prostrate gland, or when a student says that he has joined the National Cadet Corpse, there is a malapropism. A Texas legislator is credited with another well-known malapropism: “This is unparalyzed in the state’s history.”
There are some incredible examples from public debate. Rachida Dati, a former French minister, deplored the way foreign investors were looking for huge profits at a time when fellatio was close to zero. She meant to say inflation, but said fellatio, a word with a lewd meaning. In the British parliament, where the English language gets chiselled and shaped by masters of oratory, occasional malapropisms can be heard too. A member declared, “Mr Speaker, you are the anecdote to verbal diarrhoea.”
Another member reminded him that he should have said antidote. In the Indian parliament, a minister declared that the government would augment water supply to Delhi from 150 to 250 megawatts. A colleague then quipped that a hundred kilometres of water would be better.
People who are interested in malapropisms are also interested in spoonerisms. These are named after a distinguished academic in Oxford, who served the University in various capacities for 60 years, and retired as president. He was admired for his scholarship, wisdom and dedication. He is remembered today for a type of slip of the tongue that he often made. Spoonerism involves the inadvertent transposition of the first syllables of two words in a phrase or clause. For example, Dr Spooner once proposed a toast to the queen with the words, “Our queer old dean”. He was a priest and in a sermon he said, “The Lord is a shoving leopard.” Announcing the name of the hymn to be sung, he said “Kinqering Congs Their Titles Take.” He reprimanded a student who had “tasted two worms” and asked him to leave “by the next town drain.” His students and friends invented new spoonerisms which were then attributed to him.
The British media have come out with horrendous examples of spoonerism. Two presenters on BBC made the same mistake on the same day, introducing culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt. The H in the surname was elided, and in its place a C was used, producing a four-letter word that touched the nadir of obscenity. Less offensive are the announcements that introduced Herbert Hoover as Hoobert Heever, and Sir Stafford Cripps as Stifford Craps.
I remember only one instance of a near-spoonerism in a real situation. A student was proposing a vote of thanks after a meeting, and wanted to thank all those who made the function a success. But what he actually said was, “We thank all those who made this sunction a ****cess.”
V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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