“Scuse me while I kiss this guy.”: Malaprops, Puns, Spoonerisms, Eggcorns, and other hilarity-inducing word mix-ups
Image: 'Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy by Gavin Edwards, art by Chris Kale
About a million years ago, I was in the bookstore with my dad (a favorite haunt for us both) when I came upon a book titled ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy: And Other Misheard Lyrics. I was 14 at the time, I had no idea to what song the author was referring to, but my dad sure thought it was funny. Fast forward a decade (give or take a few years) and I’m watching a rerun of The Office called “Casino Night” in which main character Michael Scott tells the audience, “I consider myself a great philanderer.” He means, of course, philanthropist, or charitable person. Philanderer, on the other hand, means a person who is unfaithful or promiscuous, which, if you’ve seen the show, turns out to be true about Michael Scott’s character, as he invites two dates to the casino night.
This particular kind of word mix-up is called malapropism. The word itself is derived the from French mal à propos which means ill-suited. A malaprop is a word used unintentionally that sounds similar to the word that was meant or intended. Extra points are scored when the misused word also applies in a roundabout way, but is not at all what the speaker meant—such as Michael Scott’s use of the word philanderer.
Examples of this device can be found from as long ago as the 1500s. Shakespeare was a master of the malaprop and used them in many of his works. The late 18th century play The Rivals by Richard Sheridan includes a character named Mrs. Malaprop who, in her attempts to gain acceptance into a higher society than the one to which she belonged, frequently misused words—to great comic effect, of course. Here are few examples of malaprops:
- For their honeymoon, the couple intended to take an erotic island vacation. (exotic)
- For all intensive purposes. (intents and)
- The accelerator at the mall was broken, so we had to take the stairs. (escalator)
In addition to the malaprop, there are similar errors that can be used for comic effect. Here are a few that might be useful for you to know—particularly for character building.
A pun is the intentional use of a word or phrase that suggests two (or more) meanings. The word or phrase itself may have two meanings, or it may sound very similar to another word that has a particular meaning. Words that sounds the same but that are spelled differently and have different meanings such as hole/whole, merry/marry, ruff/rough, etc. are often used in this device, but not necessarily.
Examples (I wrote these, but there are more at So Much Pun!)
- The plumbing store was flush with a variety of toilet seats.
- The rabbits came up with a harebrained scheme to open a barber shop.
NOTE: Both “hairbrained” and “harebrained” are common in usage, the term means “silly as a hare” and should thus be spelled. In my example, either would work as a pun.
- The brewmaster at the newly opened pub seemed a little tense and he barely talked the entire night he was so bottled up.
A spoonerism is an accidental or deliberate-for-humor’s-sake error in speech in which consonants, vowels, or parts of words are transposed. The result is usually nonsensical, but clear enough to understand both the intent and appreciate the random act of humor produced by the switch. While the device is very old and can be found in literature that dates back to the 12th century, it is named after Reverend William Archibald Spooner of New College, Oxford, who supposedly suffered from this speech impediment.
Examples: The classic excuse given to the cop who pulled you over for a DUI is a spoonerism: I’m not as think as you drunk I am. Bass-akwards is a spoonerism, as is nucking futs. According to Wikipedia, the following are attributed to Dr. Spooner:
- "Three cheers for our queer old dean!" (dear old queen, referring to Queen Victoria)
- "Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride?" (customary to kiss)
- "Someone is occupewing my pie. Please sew me to another sheet." (occupying my pew...show me to another seat)
More about spoonerisms can be found at The Straight Dope.
An eggcorn is the substitution of a word or phrase that sounds similar to the word or phrase that it is replacing. Unlike malapropos where the result is funny but nonsensical, an eggcorn creates a phrase that could still make sense in the same context, but they are like malapropos and (some) spoonerisms in that the speaker doesn’t intend to mix up the word. Puns, on the other hand, are generally intended by the speaker to show wit or creativity. The term “eggcorn” is attributed to linguist Geoffrey Pullman in reference to a woman who used the term instead of acorn.
- “elk” instead of “ilk”: Annie Oakley and other women of her elk were pioneering ladies of the Wild West.
- “youthamism” instead of “euphemism”: The kids playing Call of Duty kept calling each other “noob” which is a youthanism for “rookie.”
- “feeble” instead of “fetal”: When I learned that the zombie apocalypse was really upon us, I had to resist the urge to curl up into a feeble position and just let the undead feast on me.
A neologism is a “new” word (hence the Greek root “neo” for new and “logos” for speech” that is recently coined and which takes hold in mainstream language. By definition, neologisms should be recent additions to the common lexicon, but there are plenty out there that are older but were neologisms at the time. They may also be new terms for an artistic or design movement such a Bauhaus, or a corporate name used for the generic product like kleenex or xerox. (NOTE: I did not capitalize either word because as a neologism, it is made generic in its usage and is not, therefore, referring to the trademarked product.) See Wikipedia for more examples.
A portmanteau is particular kind of neologism that involves the mash-up of two or more words to create a new word that has the sounds and meanings from both words. Many of these end up as popular slang words or corporate names. Comcast is a portmanteau; it is a combination of the words communication and broadcast. Celebrity and political figures often get portmanteaus assigned to them such as Bennifer (Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez) or Billary (Bill and Hillary Clinton). Slang terms like fauxhawk (faux + Mohawk) and bromance (brother + romance) are portmanteaus as are commonly used terms like smog (smoke + fog) and spork (spoon + fork). Of course, trusty ol’ Wikipedia has a list of more. In fact, Wikipedia is a portmanteau of wiki and encyclopedia.
Ok, I made this last one up, but if spoonerism can become a literary term, why not autocorrectism? Those with tablets or Smartphones know where this is going. Autocorrects are words produced by an electronic device that mistakenly “corrects” an unrecognized word or mistyped word into another, usually hilarious, sometimes disastrous, and vaguely Freudian word that changes the entire meaning of the message. Examples are popping up all over the web. There’s even a website devoted to the subject: Damn You Autocorrect!
Personally, I think the creators of autocorrect are pervs. For example, my iPhone frequently wants to autocorrect don’t to dong. (Do people REALLY talk about bells and penises more than they use the word “don’t”?!) I once received this text from my husband: No need to cock anything with the fish. Another time, he called me a cootie instead of a cutie. Then there are just the random autocorrects; I once invited a friend to my z beat party instead of my birthday party. She envisioned some sort of zebra-themed disco rave.
THESE ARE COOL, NOW WHAT?
My point in all this is to highlight the flexibility of words and language. As with any craft, knowing the tools in your toolbox will make you a more skilled craftsperson. The devices listed above can be useful to a writer in several ways:
- As fodder for character-building, in that you may want to give one of your characters a particular speaking pattern or impediment.
- As a reminder to pay attention to the words that he or she is choosing and making sure it’s the exact right word for the job
- To create humor
- To combine words to form new meanings & ideas
Research, create an example of, or share a story you know about each of the literary devices described in the article. Here they are again for reference:
Have fun with this, and please post in the comments section or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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