Modern-day Malapropisms: Yogiisms versus Trumpisms

The term “Malapropism” describes a lovable feature of our all-too-human use of language—that is, using the almost-right-but-not-quite-right word. illustrates their entry with this example, spoken by the TV character, Archie Bunker:

“Patience is a virgin.”

This example illustrates the layers of possibility within subtle linguistic missteps.  In choosing the words “patience is a virgin” instead of “patience is a virtue” the script-writers pile on a little jokey sexual innuendo and maybe a touch of creepy-old-man, building Archie Bunker’s character as a conservative curmudgeon in the decades-old sitcom, All in the Family.

A good malapropism—like any good joke—may also go down in history. Everyday people seem to remember them and pass them along.  Something about them draws people to savor the language, to recognize its special capacity for creative meaning, and even to make fun of ourselves and the human condition.

The baseball coach, Yogi Berra, was famous for his malapropisms (or “Yogiisms”), and forScreen Shot 2017-05-26 at 3.36.50 PM their humor and everyday pithy wisdom.  Phrases like “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility,” “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded,” or “When you get to a fork in the road, take it” bring home some shared sense of the absurdity of everyday life.  Rather than bringing out the dictionary and calling Yogi to the mat for being incorrect or nonsensical, people have ended up repeating these Yogiisms-turned-aphorisms.  An internet search yields dozens of sites compiling his top 20 (or 50!) phrases.

Now, Donald Trump has become a modern proliferator of malapropisms:

Unpresidented or Unprecedented When condemning China’s actions in international waters, he referred to their actions as “unpresidented”:

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7/11 (The convenience store?) versus 9/11 During his presidential campaign, he denounced the terror attacks on the World Trade Center—those that occurred on “Seven Eleven.”

“I watched our police and our firemen down on 7/11, down on the World Trade Center before it came down.”

Bigly versus Big League Also during his campaign, Trump repeatedly used the term “bigly.” Though his handlers claimed he was saying “big league,” this odd usage stood out so prominently to citizens that memes around “bigly” have proliferated…bigly.

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There are probably more, and more serious malapropisms in Trump’s repertoire.  But even this short list suggests a qualitative difference between Trump’s malapropisms and Yogi Berra’s—or even Archie Bunker’s.  Trump’s seem worse.

But, if malapropisms aren’t inherently bad, what exactly is wrong with Trumpisms?

It’s not that they are “poor English.” Many people have written about how Trump abuses the English language. Some have catalogued Trump’s malapropisms as “Times when the English language took a hit”. But abuse of the English language is not the real problem here.

The problem isn’t that Trump uses words in unorthodox ways, but the precise quality of the missteps he makes.  They show none of the qualities of time-tested malapropisms—humor or tacit wisdom.  Granted, the 7/11 gaff may have dark humor to it.  But, generally, Trumpisms are not funny.  He certainly has no sense of humor about them.  In fact, he often tries to correct them immediately by removing tweets (like the “unpresidented” tweet above) as soon as he’s been called out.  Trumpisms shed no wisdom or whimsical perspective on the human condition.  The only tacit message they communicate is (at best) that he doesn’t really care that much.  And no amount of time with a dictionary, grammar book, or linguistics professor will cure that.

Good news: Despite Trump’s use of bigly, unpresidented, 7/11 (for 9/11), and probably many more absurdities, the English language is safe.  Trump may spew malapropisms, but malapropisms in themselves are not bad—they show us that language is alive and inevitably unorthodox at times. Every day, people use words in ways which create new (unpresidented?) meanings.

And who knows, maybe soon we will be unpresidented!  Patience is a virgin.

Please add your comments below! Do you have malapropisms you love or hate?  Any recent Trumpisms to add? What can we learn from these?

Making a Scene: Get thee to YouTube

Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 9.44.39 PMI just saw Shakespeare’s Hamlet off Broadway at the Classic Stage Company. The production features Peter Sarsgaard as a hipster Hamlet, drinking, sniffing coke (meth?) and lackadaisically moping around, while delivering his lines in a way that uncannily grabbed my attention. His perfectly laid-back, but pained delivery turned the super-familiar, “To be or not to be…”, “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt…”, “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him…” into brand-new-seeming phrases.

Hearing these lines again also made me think of the modern Internet meme-like quality of much of Shakespeare. How different is “To be or not to be” from President Obama’s “Yes we can!” or Sweet Brown’s “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”? Why do we keep watching and performing these phrases again and again? One reason might be that each time we hear these recognizable words in new contexts, we experience something different (See also, modern day poetics post). How would this work with Shakespeare?

I decided to choose one meme-like phrase of the play and focus on that, and Sarsgaard’s performance struck me most during the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene. I had remembered this scene as one of an angry Hamlet ranting at Ophelia (his girlfriend) telling her, “Get thee to  a nunnery!”, shoving her around crazily. But in Sarsgaard’s version, Hamlet and Ophelia (played by Lisa Joyce) seemed not really to be talking to each other at all. Hamlet wasn’t ever yelling and rarely even directing his speech at Ophelia, but musing to himself about the pointlessness of marriage, the fickle nature of all women. He closed the scene in angst, leaving the stage without looking at Ophelia:

I say, we will have no more marriages:

Those that are married already, all but one, shall live;

The rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go.

Throughout the scene, Hamlet came off as depressed and disillusioned with all womanhood and humanity. Ophelia seemed heartbroken, for losing Hamlet, and for Hamlet losing his mind. Each seemed not to be talking to, or even addressing each other. The scene, as played by Skarsgaard and Joyce seemed about painful and isolating misunderstanding. It seemed deeper and sadder than I had ever remembered.

I turned to YouTube: How do others make meaning out of these words?

First, I found the Mel Gibson (1990) movie version:


Though this scene takes a long time, Gibson cuts nearly half of the text. He never even says “get thee to a nunnery,” “make thy way to a nunnery” or even, the final, “to a nunnery go!” Instead, he yells a lot and pushes Ophelia around.

Next, I looked to the more elegant Kenneth Branagh & Kate Winslet (1996) movie version. Here Branagh includes all of Shakespeare’s text, including “Get thee to a nunnery.” And he delivers it directly to Ophelia’s face.


Branagh, like Gibson, but not to such a degree, yells a lot while storming around a huge castle atrium.

Ethan Hawke (2000) takes a different approach. He is a modern guy, involved in business dealings in New York, up in a high rise, holding a beer (Carlsberg). But, like Gibson & Branagh, in the nunnery scene, he emotes directly to Ophelia. He is massaging her shoulders as he delivers his “Get thee to a Nunnery” line, and oddly pleading with her when he tells her why she should go, “We are errant knaves all; believe none of us”:


One YouTube commenter (the only one) suggests a possible problem with this performance:


As Georgian Wolf’s comment hints, Hawke’s engaged stance toward Ophelia seems strange considering the harsh, yet almost stream-of-consciousness content of his lines.

Big Stars are not the only ones performing Shakespeare on YouTube. So, I started looking at non-professional versions performed by students in English classes. My favorite was an unlikely performance by “Hong Kong students”:


This version came closest to the painful sense of detachment and loneliness I got from Sarsgaard’s performance. Hamlet is staring off into space for the “get thee to a nunnery” line. And, many of the other lines cut to imagined, dreamlike spaces (and distinctly non-Denmark like settings):


This HK Students’ version might speak more to other high school age students (especially in Hong Kong) than any of the professional productions do. And, collectively, this small set of YouTube scenes (and there are many more) illuminate the potential range of interpretations of a single scene, even a single line, of Shakespeare—including the potential to mock Mao Zedong!

Still, many High School English students seek out the “Spark Notes” website rather than YouTube to try to figure out what is going on in Shakespeare. How does Spark Notes represent the Nunnery scene?

Hamlet is very nasty to Ophelia and tells her to become a nun.

After seeing a YouTube repository of Shakespeare scenes, performed in dozens of new ways, this bare bones description disappoints. Unlike a Spark Notes synopsis, YouTube performances of classics don’t attempt to generically summarize THE meaning of a scene. They collectively communicate the huge range of potential meanings behind not only Shakespeare, but all our language. Also, inevitably, some performances work, some don’t. Why? What comes together to make a scene? How could centuries-old drama make sense in our world? Why do some performances speak more to certain people than others? To explore these kinds of questions, get thee to YouTube!

Have you encountered YouTube versions of “classics”? Have you any favorite versions? Can YouTube help students connect to literature and understand language in this way? Please comment below!

Modern Day Poetics: Internet Memes

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Eyebrows on fleek

All your base are belong to us

I’ll get you my pretty…and your little dog too

One does not simply…walk into Mordor

Do you recognize any of these phrases? Do images come to mind when you hear them?

My guess is that most readers can identify these as common Internet memes:  Phrases that drop from seemingly nowhere and are suddenly said everywhere.  (If you don’t recognize them, google a few and you will soon discover a new world.)

Why do these exist?  You may be thinking now, “who knows?”  “who cares?” or perhaps even:


I would like to humbly suggest that all these phrases build a common culture, a shared poetics, capable of spreading ideas, laughter, joy, idiocy, wisdom, and general being-together-ness, the same way adages (“A stitch in time saves nine”  “Early to bed…” “Haste makes waste”), poetry, folktales, or fables provide a medium for sharing ideas among a social group.

Why call it “Poetics”?   Isn’t this elevating the super-mundane to the arch and sublime?

Like poetry, memes lose their thrust when paraphrased or translated literally word for word. Memes get meaning not from individual words, but from the way words (and images, fonts, sound, music) are put together. As an astute student of mine pointed out, the expressive power of “Ain’t nobody got time for that” does not come through in a translation like, “Nobody has sufficient time to do that.”

And why does this matter?

Memes provide us a new way of thinking about how language works.  A way that is not homogenizing or reliant on a standardized set of rules or definitions.  To the contrary, memes often accumulate their meaning by combining ways of speaking that we don’t typically think of going together.  The arid diction of “One simply does not walk into Mordor” and the earthy “Aint nobody got time for that” combined give us joy!  The fantastical “I’ll get you my pretty” from Wizard of Oz lends an extra hint of evil when it is layered onto a more contemporary political rivalry:


Now, take this view of memes and modern day poetics and think of everyday communication: Expressing ourselves can be more effective, creative, joyous and communicative when we combine words/languages/gestures and images so freely;  When “Aint nobody got time for that” can be used in the same sentence as “the quadradic equation”;  Or when phrases from Spanish, French, Tagalog, and English can rally one another in new, yet recognizable, combinations.So, memes, while functional as poetic chunks, also take on meaning in these creative combinations.  They provide the medium for continued snowballing of expression.

What role do Internet memes play in your life?  Do they facilitate communication?  Thinking? By analogy, do combinations of ways of speaking make communicating more facile? Do you know any multilingual memes? Add your comments, memes, examples here!