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.  YourDictionary.com 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?

Getting It Wrong and Having No Point: Brain Damage or Brilliance?

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 6.45.40 PMSunday afternoon conversations, at their best, tend to be luxuriously meandering. Such was case last Sunday when the topic turned to memories of a friend’s Grandfather. I had been admiring the old and crotchety orange cat strolling under the kitchen table, when my friend mentioned that his grandfather had always referred to that cat as a dog. Even in grandfather’s more youthful prime, “He tended to name things randomly and incorrectly a lot.” That was just the kind of person he was.

I had to mull that over for a while.   What kind of person, a super-competent English speaker, mind you, incorrectly labels things? The recalling of grandpa calling a familiar housecat a dog, drew a picture in my mind of a bemused, quietly confident man, pleased with his place in the world. Judging by the affectionate tone of this story, his grandson would love him anyway.

Later, in Citizen Sociolinguistic mode, I began to wonder: How else do people seize the language and playfully make it their own—metaphorically “calling the cat a dog”? And what happens when they do?

In contrast to my impression of grandpa as a creative, bemused man, comfortable in his own skin, a quick Google search for “saying words wrong” primarily yielded sites discussing dementia, aphasia, multiple sclerosis, learning disabilities and speech disorders. Some long discussion boards feature people anxiously recalling when they told their children to find a dish “in the oven” when they meant “dishwasher,” or calling their children by the dog’s name! (Nota Bene: I’ve never done that.) Many responses speculate these people have brain lesions. All these sites frame misusing language as a health problem.

But a search for “intentionally saying words wrong” leads to a much more fanciful set of examples. The Wikipedia entry for Malapropisms comes near the top of the list, and highlights a few of the more entertaining literary versions. Authors put the “wrong” words into certain characters’ mouths to bring out their whimsical or quirky nature.

The literary figure, Mrs. Malaprop (namesake of the term), most famously utters “a nice derangement of epitaphs” rather than “a nice arrangement of epithets.” The know-it-all quality of her character emerges through these silly missteps in speech. The more she tries to sound sophisticated, the more she sounds ridiculous.

That may offer insight into another great source of malapropisms: the world of politics. Wikipedia lists a few gems:

Former Chicago Mayor, Richard Daley, referred to “Alcoholics Anonymous” as

Alcoholics Unanimous

Texas Governor and one-time presidential nominee Rick Perry  once referred to states as, not laboratories, but

lavatories of innovation and democracy

Google the phrase  “political malapropisms” and even more surface, as do lengthy YouTube compilations of George W. Bush quotes, like this (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhmdEq3JhoY), including the following:

  • “a single mother working hard to put food on your family.”—Greater Nashua, N.H., Chamber of Commerce, Jan. 27, 2000
  • “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”—Florence, S.C., Jan. 11, 2000
  • “Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB/GYNs aren’t able to practice their love with women all across the country.”—Poplar Bluff, Mo., Sept. 6, 2004

Obviously, Bushims are different from those malapropisms intentionally put into the mouths of literary characters. But are they as “unintentional” as someone with Alzheimer’s disease? Do these politicians have brain damage?

No. Michael Silverstein has pointed out in his “pamphlet,” Talking Politics: The Substance of Style from Abe to “W” (http://www.prickly-paradigm.com/titles/talking-politics-substance-style-abe-w.html) that Bushisms (the modern Malapropism) may even be strategic: Phrases like “a single mother with two children” working hard “to put food on your family” seem to have been a political boon for Bush. Because of the light-hearted, charmingly all-too-human light these oddities cast on him, they made him seem like good Presidential material. Strategists did not squelch Bushisms (as one might if they suggested brain damage) but encouraged the wide circulation of these malapropisms/Bushisms.

Departing further from the Internet Web for a dip into the philosophy of language, I pulled Donald Davidson off the dusty, dusty shelf, recalling his essay, ”Reality without Reference.” Davidson has captured the value of “calling a cat a dog.” Communication, he suggests, has less to do with conventions or rules than understanding one’s context and how one’s words affect it.   As he has written in that essay, “we must give up the concept of reference as basic to an empirical theory of language .” Instead, language is something we take out and play with, using what we have learned, trying new things, waiting to see what happens, acting on the world through words—in many cases ignoring their dictionary-designated reference.

The many Internet sites on dementia suggest that if we use words in new ways without meaning to, we may have a serious mental health problem. I am not denying that these may, indeed be signs of mental impairment. But “dementia” might not be the best first explanation. When the use of non-conventional language gets framed, first off, as a learning disability, speech impairment, brain damage, or some other health problem, much of the world responds by struggling hard to conform to rules of language that should be ignored.   Meanwhile, the happy few—great writers, political strategists, comfortably aging Philadelphians, teenagers around the world, hip-hop artists, university faculty—are flaunting those rules, happily using words the “wrong” way.

In a perversely malapropistic way, using words wrong(ly) doesn’t lead to the downfall of the language, but might be one of the most sophisticated things a speaker can do.

Do you know people who intentionally use the “wrong” word? To what effect? Please comment and share your examples below!