When my brother was in fifth grade and I was in second, he started playing flamingo guitar. It didn’t sound like the guitars the Beatles and the Stones played. It was fancier, with abrupt rhythms and lots of plucking. Maybe that’s why it had such a curious name: flamingo? Then I saw the lesson book: flamenco guitar.
I didn’t know it, but I had created a malapropism by misusing a word that sounded like the correct one but had a different meaning. Malapropism and its variant malaprop derive from the French phrase “mal à propos,” which means “badly for the purpose.” The terms come from a character in Richard Sheridan’s play The Rivals, written in 1775. Mrs. Malaprop misuses words throughout to great comic effect, e.g., “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” With the play’s success in England and the colonies, her name was destined for immorality.
I meant immortality, of course. But I couldn’t resist the joke. That’s the thing about malaprops: they are funny. Check out these classics, with the correct word in parentheses:
Yogi Berra: “Texas has a lot of electrical votes.” (electoral)
Archie Bunker: “Buy one of them transvestite radios.” (transistor)
Michael Scott: “I consider myself a great philanderer.” (philanthropist)
Tony Soprano: “I was prostate with grief.” (prostrate)
Mike Tyson: “I might just fade into Bolivian.” (oblivion)
Stan Laurel: “We heard the ocean is infatuated with sharks.” (infested)
Mayor Thomas Menino: “He was a man of great statue.” (stature)
I once worked at an ad agency that offered employees a first-aid class teaching the Heimlich Maneuver. When the office manager asked each of us if we wanted to register, she referred to the life-saving technique as the Hymen Maneuver. People choked with laughter.
And then there was the three-year-old who had the misfortune of getting a rash on his private parts. He knew his parents had used an ointment to soothe his woes, but confused Vaseline with another word: “Hey, Dad, should we put more gasoline on it?”
We’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that one.