Tag Archives: literacy

Malapropisms

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.

                  Norm Crosby

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.

Best of the Bushisms

American Morning takes a look at the best of so-called “Bushisms.” Videos put together by CNN of stupid quotes Bush had said for 8 years. OBAMA 2008, and again for 2012! ☻/ /▌ /

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.

Everyone Needs an Editor

Who hasn’t read something, including this blog, only to find a sudden and apparently unplanned descent into verbal mayhem?  Perhaps the author didn’t notice his elbow resting on the keyboard. Perhaps the four-legged family member decided to add a few keystrokes.

Creating sentences on paper or with pixels poses lifelong challenges.  Even accomplished writers usually demur if you tell them they are masters of their craft. Most will admit to writing in drafts that number in the double digits, and most share the almost universal experience of re-reading old material with the nagging feeling that it could have been better. Writing is one skill that is rarely mastered.  Full literacy is a lifelong project. Even so, an occasional stray word left in the wrong neighborhood is not the largest problem. Difficulties arise at the other end of the continuum, where what appears “finished” to a novice is only a pale version of what could be.  Early drafts deserve to be thoroughly marked up.

Everyone needs an editor. Two sets of eyes will improve almost any text.  And why not? Academic presses often send a manuscript out to three experts for review before they green-light a book. Good surgeons often welcome another set of eyes to review scans and x-rays.  Playwrights do workshop readings to discover dead passages or weak third acts.  And advertisers use illustrators to ‘mock up’ storyboards for television commercials before they commit to a full-scale film shoot.  Rare is a  writer like John McPhee, who is so thorough in his research and phrasing that an editor seems unnecessary.

Everyone needs an editor. Two sets of eyes will improve almost any text.

I plead with my students to try out their work on others they know. This is perhaps the single best reason to have a college roommate.  But I still get projects that describe Washington and Jefferson as “too pivotal presidents,” or analyses of “communication problems that defy easy remededeys.”  And woe to folks who count on being bailed out by a computer spell-check program.  My computer was fine with the word “dissent” in the original pull-quote at the top of this piece.

These cases may sound like this need is limited to professionals. But recall the last time you read a family’s holiday letter that revealed more about one of its members than better judgment would allow. Johnny may not want everyone to know that he’s been “challenged” to complete his remedial math course. Such a letter should have been vetted by someone else with a more protective instinct.

The need for an outsider’s input is also apparent for missives that come from a manager who says too much or includes too little.  For example, it would be helpful to know the day and time for that important meeting that she has just announced. And every person mentioned in such a piece has the right to expect that their name will be spelled correctly. Smart managers will usually welcome a second pair of eyes on a document planned for wide distribution.  But certainly not all. The most insecure may not appreciate being saved from errors by more literate underlings.

Who hasn’t read this blog only to find passages where the best explanations for the sudden disintegration of a sentence is that the writer experienced an errant brain synapse?  It’s the curse of blogging that pieces are let loose in the world too soon, with the equivalent of seams gaping open, buttons missing and tags still attached.

Sorry about those slip-ups.  I need an editor.