Some thoughts inevitably wander off course. A person’s consciousness may have a clear fix on an idea, but the neural pathways that produce speech have to be able to deliver it.
A friend recently emailed a couple who had sold a property they owned in Florida after many attempts, noting that they must be glad to finally “be rid of their condom.” I’m sure they eventually figured out what she meant. If all else fails, blame the autocorrect function on the computer. I similarly recall an errant explanation to students describing the risks to American troops stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq. I noted that soldiers were constant targets for “exploding IUDs.” It’s an example of a wrong turn on the highway to fluency that my colleagues won’t let me forget.
A malaprop is a near miss: the wrong word or phrase used in discourse that was striving for an idea that sounds similar. When President Trump recently talked about the “oranges” of the Mueller investigation, we can figure out that he probably meant “origins.” It’s the same process that showed up in his press conference with the chairman of Apple, known to the rest of us as Tim Cook. The orange President repeatedly referred to him as “Tim Apple.” Clearly, older minds are not as nimble as younger ones.
Malaprops were a source of a lot of American humor in the last century. Performed routines featuring mangled English were often a staple of earlier radio and television comedy. Think of Gracie Allen, Mel Blank or Norm Crosby. As Marjorie Gottlieb Wolfe recalls, audiences loved Crosby’s references to “human beans,” “trousers that need an altercation,” a sports idol who is “an insulation to young players,” and human bodies that can be “subject to so many melodies.”
Back then there was more laughing and less mocking. After all, like puns, malaprops that we notice require a degree of literacy; the fun is in recognizing the violated grammatical or lexical rules.
Mastering the burdens of language is a lifetime process.
In recent years politicians have supplied all the miscues we need to keep us in grinning. Without doubt, George W. Bush remains our single best source of a public figure whose thoughts have wandered into the wilderness. He seemed to know what he wanted to say, but sometimes lacked the verbal skills to actually deliver it.
Of course the problem turns more serious when the speaker or writer is not aware that they have used the wrong words. The joke is then on them, feeding the impression that they are perhaps not as swift as we might have thought. Such is the power of literacy signifiers. Mastering the burdens of language is a lifetime process.