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About a decade ago, I stared out of a bus window watching the runaway blur of trees and gyrating with the busy hum of the bus engine. The vehicle wheels were losing a fierce battle with a dusty, jagged and rebarbative road.   A shrill voice pierced through the air, unwavering and resonating at a frequency that is seldom attained by humankind, and I suspect is mostly only detected by select Canines.  She was all of about seven years old, and sat at the very front of the School bus.  My attention focused on the familiar tune that had been hijacked by such a young warbler.

“I can see clearly now the rain has goooooone….!.”

Sensing her newfound audience in the back, she turned to face me and flashed a toothless grin.

“I can see all Lobsticals in my waaaayyy.”

It soon became apparent that she didn’t know any of the chorus and was singing the same couple of lines “on loop” with puerile fervor.  I stopped her.

“You can see all what in your way?”

“Lobsticals,” she replied indignantly.

“What is a Lobstical?” I responded, inquisitively.

“It is one of those little creatures with the claws.” She emulated pincers with her tiny hands.  Ahh. The Lobstical; that edible marine crustacean, an elusive delicacy that is somewhat more difficult to catch and most certainly less known than its cousin, the Lobster.

Her imaginative rendition of the Johnny Nash classic reminded me of an example of my own lyric butchering when I was her age.  I sang along to Paul Young’s classic with all the ardor and gusto a little person could muster, while simultaneously causing my father to cringe, recoil in disbelief and howl with laughter.

(cue aforementioned ultrasonic squealy-singing)

“Everytime you go awaaayy….you take a piece of meat with you.”

So, let’s be real here – the English language is complicated as hell.  Inconsistent.   Sneaky.  Machiavellian at times.  Years of chattering in your native tongue might give you a false sense of confidence, bravado even – which is when it will strike back; all tooth and clause. You will be tripped up by a stealthy spelling error or toppled from your syntactical high horse by an evil malapropism.  Slandered by improper slang, mislead by misnomers, terminated for your terminology, jilted for your jargon.   I recently discovered, much to my chagrin, that I have been spelling “genius” wrong my entire life.  Hello! “Would you like a giant dollop of irony with your humble pie, Alice?”  The potential for anyone to fall into grammatical booby-traps is a real and sobering one.  In my formerly “genious” and now very humble opinion, it is not a stretch to surmise that conjunctive adverbs may give one conjunctivitis and by starting out Hooked On Phonics®, you just might end up Hooked On Crack®.

Perhaps the most dangerous pitfalls are the malapropism and the mondegreen.  Those stealthy, merciless and nondiscriminatory predators that invade our language, ferociously devouring intended meaning. Their victims are left exposed and humiliated, bewildered, perplexed and sometimes, in the most dire of attacks; proposing that a nearby village is missing their prize idiot.

My trusty Google-fingers have procured some information on where the word “Malapropism” came from. “Malapropism” is from the French “mal a propos” (which literally translates as “ill to the purpose”.  The word “malapropism” was coined by Richard Brinsley Sheridan in 1775 and came from the name of his character, Mrs Malaprop, a protagonist in his play, “Rivals”.  Mrs Malaprop frequently mispronounced and incorrectly named things, for comedic effect, solidifying the term.  Mondegreen refers to a type of aural malapropism and is a mondegreen in itself.  One of my favorite examples of a mondegreen is when you hear someone singing the lyrics to Jimmy Hendrix’s Purple Haze as, “Excuse me, while I kiss this guy!”  American writer Sylvia Wright established the term after her own childhood experience.  Sylvia had listened intently to her mother reciting from Percy’s Reliques and had remembered the poem as;

Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands,

Oh, where hae ye been?

They hae slain the Earl Amurray,

And Lady Mondegreen.

The actual line is, “and laid him on the green”.

Although it might appear that these afflictions are confined in solidarity to the years of childhood and derive directly from the mouths of babes, I have regrettably observed that these contagious maladies are not bound by age or demographic.  The desultory desolation of the English language is contagious, hugely inevitable and spreads like wild-fire from one unsuspecting individual to the next.

While at my former job, I was approached by a particularly gregarious male colleague, who often passed me by with a smile that might only have rivaled the Cheshire Cat.  Seriously – ear-to-ear business.  I always matched his smile politely to return the jovial gesture.  One morning, he stopped in his tracks, studied my beaming smile and approached me.

“Oh,” he nodded in an approving manner, “You have nipples.”

I was frozen solid by his audacity.  An icy grip of disbelief and total panic paralyzed me.  How in God’s name were my nipples exposed!?  How could this be happening?  I scoured through my memory for this particular morning’s entry where I had surely dressed myself as usual?  Perhaps a couple of buttons had obstreperously broken free?  Admittedly, I do enjoy the odd glass or five of Pinot Grigio – but what kind of a hellacious boozy-bender had I gone on last night that I arrived to work sans shirt and sunny-side up this morning?  Then it dawned on me: Dimples.  English being the second language of my mistaken colleague, he had said nipples instead of the lesser-used “dimples” to describe the characteristic indentations on each side of my erstwhile grin.  Either that, or I had sprouted nipples on my forehead.  He walked calmly away from me, smiling obliviously, following his familiar route towards the restaurant’s kitchen, entirely self-assured and completely unaware that he was totally lost in translation.

My Nana, as well as being one of the most inspiring, compassionate and magnanimous individuals I have ever known, was also perhaps the reigning Queen of Malapropisms. A refreshingly candid octogenarian from the North of England, she once issued my mother with a very detailed shopping list for the local supermarket. My mother diligently scuttled to the store, list in hand, and began to select each requested item from the supermarket.

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Juice
  • Mr Kipling’s teacakes (did I mention how English she was?)
  • Fish pie
  • Bread
  • Butter
  • Biscuits (American translation = cookies)

My mom checked each article off the hand-written list with ease until she reached the final item:

  • God in Parsley Sauce.

Apparently my grandmother had confused the Lord Almighty with a Northern Atlantic bottom-dwelling fish.

One character that played a prominent part and regularly featured in my Nana’s stories throughout my youth was The Old Melp.  I saw my Nana only once a year in the summertime, when I would get to enjoy her fantastic stories.  The Old Melp was involved in loads of adventures over the years, brought to life by Nana’s vivid and often side-splitting knack for story-telling.  Sometimes the Old Melp had been “up to no good” and other times she was committing some act of great heroism. I can even remember her being under police investigation for theft in one story.  She seemed to be either the hero or a total reprobate curiously enough, which lead me to believe she was a particularly unstable individual.  Having never met The Old Melp in person (unlike many of the other wonderful characters Nana associated with), I pieced together a mental image of her based upon a hazy collection of her many adventures coupled with a smattering of imagination run wild (and I do let it run…).  The library of stories from which to concoct this picture was brimming, and included stories of The Old Melp from long before my birth.  Here is what my warped mind came up with:  The Old Melp was female, though somewhat androgynous in appearance and most certainly a force to be reckoned with.  She was at least ninety years of age (at the very least to comply with the timeline of stories), with long, gnarly fingernails, yellowed with a profusion of experience.  The Old Melp had squinty little soul-searching eyes and a repugnant face; creased and worn with the deep lines of time. She had a hunchback, an encumbering limp and when my imagination permitted it, a small parrot on her shoulder that mimicked BBC news broadcasts.

I finally learned that when my Nana had been talking about “The Old Melp”, she had in fact been saying, “the Home Help” which referred to the workers that came to assist at the homes of the elderly.  I was later informed that almost each month, she had a new representation from the Home Help arrive to help out at her apartment. Somehow I had combined the stories of at least two decades worth of individuals into one ominous individual; The Old Melp.  Genious.

Delightfully humbling and generally hilarious, the complexity of the English language breeds these malapropisms.  Another colleague of mine once recommended that I go down to the cafeteria and try the, “Butt cakes.”  I will never look at another Bundt cake the same way again.  Perhaps the most amusing (and easiest to keep on record) are the malapropisms that sneak their way into student’s papers by the elephant of surprise.

I have heard that one young student announced to the class with particular zest that the “bowels” are A, E, I, O and U.  Another defiantly announced that the four seasons are “salt, pepper, vinegar and mustard.”

Below are some of my favorites for your reading pleasure (some are decidedly insightful).

  • Your education determines your loot in life
  • Arabs wear turbines on their heads
  • Charles Darwin was a naturalist who wrote the Organ Of The Species
  • David was a Hebrew King skilled at playing the liar
  • The doctor felt the man’s purse and said there was no hope
  • The dog ran across the lawn, emitting whelps all along the way
  • Finally the colonists won the war and no longer had to pay for taxis
  • The first thing to do when a baby is born is cut the biblical chord
  • The flood damage was so bad they had to evaporate the city
  • Flying saucers are an optical conclusion
  • Growing up the trellis were pink and yellow concubines
  • Having one wife is called monotony
  • Homer also wrote the Oddity, in which Penelope was the last hardship that Ulysses endured on his journey
  • In Spring, the salmon swim upstream to spoon
  • In the Olympic Games, Greeks ran races, jumped, hurled biscuits and threw the java
  • In the nineteenth Century, pheasants led terrible lives
  • Iron was discovered because someone smelt it
  • I suffer from a deviant septum
  • King Alfred conquered the Dames
  • Louis Pasteur discovered a cure for rabbis

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I have watched the magic transformation from afar. The bikini-clad figure contentedly stretches out on her prophetic Hawaiian Tropic© towel, a smug and waxy grin slowly creeping across her oil-slicked face. She lies perfectly still, imbibing the Suns hazy rays, coconut-kissed skin infusing a warm glow that delicately wraps her body in a blanket of exuberant color. I can almost watch her previously lackluster complexion becoming enhanced by a luminous veil, shrouded in a salubrious shine. Her enraptured countenance is perfectly peaceful as she engages in a subtle seduction of sunlight. It happens, that unmistakably exquisite blush, the Tan.

By contrast, I am a self-admitted Tanorexic. The times that I have attempted to gain even a shade of pigment have proved veritable disasters. I have painstakingly fastened myself to a sunscreen-sticky beach towel, like a flailing grub to a sheet of goo-gluey fly paper. Slippery, clammy and uncomfortable. I have then made a monomaniacal attempt to find my happy place as the Sun beats down upon my inner eyelids, slowly and mercilessly smoking my lily-white complexion. I try to lie still as my head starts to thump like a metronome, a beady layer of sweat burgeoning underneath the suffocating sunscreen (factor 50 no less, thank you). I can literally feel my skin stinging and baking in the sun as I feel about as sensual as a Baked Potato. The results are pitiful and usually a little disturbing. Over the course of the next week, I will develop my own unique color, not dissimilar to that of the Eunephrops bairdii of the Caribbean Sea, more commonly known as the Red Lobster. Often times the Sun has tainted my entire body a deep scarlet hue, except for, most cruelly, the two large circular areas surrounding my eyes that have been left their usual porcelain shade. As if in reprimand, I am left resembling a paralyzed Raccoon in bright headlights. This alarming transformation is swiftly followed by a most gruesome process in which my entire epidermis systematically falls off my person, usually in the most inconveniently public of places and mostly, in accordance with Murphys Law, when I have important events to attend (weddings, reunions, bumping into an ex and his supermodel squeeze). Sadly, it is a far cry from the sun-kissed individuals that grace the pages of Swimsuit Illustrated.

I have always been the palest. When my foundation runs out, Liquid Paper is a fairly adequate substitute. Someone once told me that a friend is someone who sees through you and still enjoys the view. I asked them if they meant that literally. The last time I tried to sunbathe with my sister, who incidentally inherited my mothers olive complexion, I ended up with a 2nd Degree burn (no exaggeration)and some matching emotional scars for good measure. When I was about 11 years old, my concerned mother trundled her translucent daughter to the dermatologist (its routine, she assured me). The imperious doctor, an Indonesian man in his fifties, took a skin-scrape from my pasty little arm. He poked and prodded, ummed and ahhed and eventually sat me down. Alice, he said, in a thick Indonesian accent, squashing the centre of his spectacles flat against the bridge of his broad nose superciliously. You have 100 times de chance of getting de skin cancer than anyone else. You must NEPER go in da sun. NEPER.

I thought for a moment. As the daughter of expatriates, I had grown up in various parts of the world, almost always near the scorching Equator. Neper would be difficult. I pressed him further for his expertise, What if I have to go in the Sun? A long pause ensued. I awaited his wise and learned answer patiently. He was a dermatologist with years of practice and a veritable plethora of certificates mounted haughtily on his office wall. “Alice, if you must go in da Sun, you must always, ALWAYS.

I anticipated the remedy, perhaps a new prescription or product was the answer? I was sure some revolutionary break through in the Dermatological world was about to be revealed to me.

“…….ALWAYS, he continued, “…..wear a suit. A suit in the sun? Did he mean Scuba or Armani?

I remember my first make-up purchase with equal astonishment. Having flipped through the pages of Seventeen and Teen religiously in my pre-teen fervor, I had admired the abundance of choice. There was a cornucopia of color to pick for a liquid foundation. The fresh-faced models who adorned the pages of these magazines had flawless vibrant complexions, miraculously matte, deliciously dewy and unbeknownst to me at the time; fastidiously airbrushed.

Upon arriving at the pharmacy I discovered that the choice of face make-up brands alone was overwhelming. I began to search zealously through the titles. The choice was vast. The hues were given the most tantalizing nom de plumes, conjuring images of an exotic paradise or mouth-watering refreshments. Cool Mahogany, Clearly Caramel, Cocoa Crisp, Tan Temptations, Cognac Caress, Mocha Magic, Heavenly Honey.

I started a lengthy quest. Brand by brand, I scoured the aisles for a suitable tint. Simply Seductive, Chocolate Kiss, Fudge Fantastic Finally I found it. Hidden away at the furthest end of the pharmacy where only the most esoteric group of melanin-challenged individuals would need to venture. My jaw dropped in horror. There was my shade. 000001: PALE BISCUIT.

Pale Biscuit. They didnt even try.

According to the findings of my rapid-fire Google-fingers, humans have had a long and varied relationship with the Sun. It was over 400 years ago that Copernicus declared the Sun the centre of the Universe. Societies all over the world have worshiped the sun, invoking it to aid crop growth (hardly a fruitless cause). In 1920, Coco Chanel made the tan popular (apparently accidentally) after some exposure to the rays on a trip from Paris to Nice. The tan became a symbol of wealth and leisure. Thanks Coco. In ancient Greece and Rome, however, it was desirable to be pasty-white and faces were smeared daily with lead-based paints and chalk (many died of lead-poisoning). Darker skin represented laborers and the lower classes from exposure to the elements while working in the fields. In the 10th Century, Arsenic became the whitener of choice (with apparently unfortunate consequences). In recent years, thank goodness, studies have shown the damaging affects of the Suns rays on our skin and more people are taking precautionary measures than hitting the beach with a bottle of oil to baste in for a good roast. I have noticed that the pharmacies in Western countries have shelves that are brimming with self-tanners, while in Asian pharmacies, the shelves are populated with skin-whiteners. Perhaps the message is clear; be happy with the skin you are in because it is better than being burned or dying of arsenic poisoning. I consider myself enlightened.

There are even a couple of advantages to being so translucent. For one, if I was ever cast in a Vampire film, I could cut back production costs with my natural opacity and a lack of need for white make-up to be paler. The odds of my pasty mug beaming at you throughout your breakfast from your milk carton are also decreased substantially. This is because I am less likely to get lost as I am usually spotted fairly easily from a distance as I provide my own lighting. I am my own beacon of light. Conversely, I can make myself scarce if need by means of camouflage against most walls. Probably the most advantageous aspect of being a whiter shade of pale or a paler shade of white is that it makes me unique. I am certainly the palest biscuit that I know.

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