A funny thing happened to me at the nail salon the other day, but first, here is my word for the day:
Malapropism: (n) the usually unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase; especially: the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context. It is derived from the French phrase mal à propos (literally “ill-suited”.)
The word malapropism comes to us via the bumbling character, Mrs. Malaprop, in R. B. Sheridan’s comedy The Rivals (1775), whose comic misuse of words was intended to poke fun at the learner’s mistakes many eighteenth century Irishmen made as they attempted to master English. Here are a few examples, from Mrs. Malaprop herself:
- “O, he will dissolve (resolve) my mystery!”
- “I have since laid Sir Anthony’s preposition (proposition) before her;”
Even before there was a word for it, Shakespeare used malapropisms in several of his plays. Constable Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing (1598) said:
- “Comparisons are odorous (odius).”
- “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended (apprehended) two auspicious (suspicious) persons.”
Such vernacular comedy isn’t limited to bygone eras. The great Norm Crosby, whose vocabulary was as complex as his sense of humor, based his comedy routines on malapropisms. And Archie Bunker of the sitcom All in the Family was known for such memorable “Archie-isms” as:
- “Catholic priests who go around sprinking incest (incense) on their congregation.”
- “A woman doctor is only good for women’s problems…like your groinocology (gynecology).”
- “In her elastic stockings, next to her very close (varicose) veins.”
Politicians, too, have famously demonstrated verbal gaffes. George W. Bush, for example, said, “The law I sign today directs new funds…to the task of collecting vital intelligence…on weapons of mass production (destruction).” And remember how often he lost the nucular (nuclear) war? In all fairness, Eisenhower and Carter also butchered the word.
So yesterday I went to the nail salon to get a pedicure from a sweet young woman named Lee, whose efforts to learn English are heroic. My ability to understand her…not so much.
“Would you like your eyebrow whacked?” she asked me as she was putting on a second coat of polish.
“My eyebrows whacked? No, thank you,” I said. “That sounds very painful.”
“How about I lick?” She nodded—enthusiastically.
“Lick? My eyebrows?”
She tilted her head and gave a one-shouldered shrug. “Just a little!” Merciful heavens, she wasn’t even being discreet! She was speaking in a normal voice, like she was asking what color nail polish I wanted!
I looked around. What sort of den of iniquity had I wandered into? “I don’t think so, thank you.”
“Luck, I mean! It good! Luck!”
“You’re telling me it’s good luck to lick my eyebrows?”
“Yes! Just a little. You don’t need a lot.”
Then she dug around and held up a pair of tweezers.
“Oh PLUCK!” I said, loud enough to draw attention to us. “You want to PLUCK my eyebrows!”
“Yes—a little luck.” She smiled at me, not realizing the comedy of our misunderstanding.
So, feeling sheepish for being so slow on the uptake and then for casting her unwittingly in the role of a modern-day Mrs. Malaprop—and even though I have no eyebrows to speak of—I said, “Sure.”
Who couldn’t use a little luck?