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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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