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A Time to Flout, A Time to Flaunt

I listen to a lot of NPR. Unless the correspondent is doing a "man in the street"-type interview, the subjects generally appear intelligent, educated and literate. At least they used to. I've heard several malapropisms in recent weeks, some of which are so common that I figure it's time I spoke up.

(Spoke up again, that is; our longer-term readers may remember this.)

Committing a malapropism in a spoken context is harder to avoid than in writing; when you're speaking, prostate can just pop out of your mouth when you mean prostrate. But when you're writing, you've got a moment to think about the word you're using. If you've got even the slightest doubt that you're using it correctly, you have the luxury of googling it. So google it. Because, frankly, nothing makes you sound or look like more of an idjit than using a malapropism.

Take flout and flaunt. I'll let our friends at Merriam-Webster.com lay it out for you:

Flout: "To treat with contemptuous disregard: scorn; flouting the rules"
Flaunt: "To display ostentatiously or impudently: parade; flaunting his superiority"

You flout convention; you flaunt your Gucci bag.

The word flout contains the word out, and when you're flouting something, you're generally venturing "out" of accepted standards. You may not be an outlaw, but you might be a floutlaw (if that were a thing). Also, flout contains an "o." The letter "o" also appears in the verb scorn, which is a synonym for flout, as are the "o" words scoff and mock (though the usage may vary somewhat if you use scorn, scoff or mock instead of flout).

Flaunt, on the other hand, contains the word aunt. I don't know about you, but my aunt has been known to flaunt her superiority in a number of areas, much to the irritation of my mother.

Disclaimer: Merriam-Webster.com does say: "Although transitive sense 2 of flaunt ["to treat contemptuously; flaunted the rules"] undoubtedly arose from confusion with flout, the contexts in which it appears cannot be called substandard ... If you use it, however, you should be aware that many people will consider it a mistake." As far as I'm concerned it is a mistake and thus substandard indeed.

Flaunt brings to mind staunch (because of the "aun" sound) and its frequent confusion with stanch.

Staunch: "Steadfast in loyalty or principle; a staunch friend"
Stanch: "To check or stop the flowing of; stanched her tears; also: to stop the flow of blood from (a wound)"

One way to remember the difference between these two is noting that staunch is an adjective, as in, "He's a staunch supporter of voting rights for dogs," whereas stanch is a verb — "trying to stanch the crime wave" (another example from M-W.com).

Moreover, stanch sounds like stand — think of stanching something as standing in its way.

Disclaimer: Merriam-Webster.com cites "staunch" and "stanch" as variants of each other. This indicates undeniably which way the wind is blowing, but I strongly object, and I know how you enjoy my objections.

Next up is tenet vs. tenant.

Tenet: "A principle, belief, or doctrine generally held to be true; especially: one held in common by members of an organization, movement, or profession"
Tenant: "One who has the occupation or temporary possession of lands or tenements of another; specifically: one who rents or leases (as a house) from a landlord"

They had to throw "tenements" in there? It's nice to suggest the shared root (Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin tenēre, to hold), but we may as well muddle the issue further by throwing in a reference to former C.I.A. director George Tenet!

Tenant contains the word ant, and whether you've got a tenant or are a tenant, if there are ants in the house, something must be done. (By the way, ant season is nearly upon us here in SoCal. If you have a problem with the little fellers, ask me where to get the miraculous Chinese ant chalk, which is highly toxic and thus a flouter of EPA regulations.)

"Tenet," on the other hand, rhymes with Senate, which, presumably, is responsible for upholding the tenets of democracy. Huzzah!

Then there's gamut and gambit (not to mention gauntlet).

Gamut: "An entire range or series; ran the gamut from praise to contempt"
Gambit: "A calculated move: stratagem"

Gambit contains the word bit — you must use a bit of cunning when you formulate a gambit; likewise, it's best to use a bit of tact when deploying a conversational gambit. Another gambit for remembering the difference: Gamut has a "u" in it. The letter "u" also appears in run, which is usually what you do with a gamut.

A "bit," finally (at least for now), leads us to champ and chomp. So few people get this right that I doubt champing will be correct for long. In fact, M-W.com cites chomp and champ as "alterations" of each other.

Champ: "To make biting or gnashing movements; to show impatience of delay or restraint — usually used in the phrase champing at the bit; he was champing at the bit to begin"
Chomp: "To chew or bite on something; usually used in the phrase chomping at the bit"

I realize there's very little difference between these definitions. Be aware, though, that champ entered the language around 1530, according to the Oxford English Dictionary; chomp is clearly a parvenu — the OED dates it to 1645 and says that it is "now a widespread variant of champ."

Suffice it to say that Seabiscuit, a champ, likely champed at the bit on more than one occasion.

Are you also a foe of malapropisms? Which ones really bug you? Have you ever corrected someone who's used one in your presence? If so, how did you do it without making him or her feel like a numbskull?

(Quick story: A dear friend persistently mispronounced a difficult word. I didn't know how to correct her without causing embarrassment, so I remained mum. Then I saw her mispronounce it in front of a large group, at which several people simply blurted out the correct pronunciation. Talk about embarrassment! I should have told her, but even after this incident, I'm not sure what the protocol is in this circumstance.)

Flaunt your highly attuned ear for malapropisms in the comments below.


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Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor. Click here to read more articles by Julia Rubiner.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday June 17th 2010, 4:58 AM
Comment by: Tony M.
Freudian slippery? A mature friend was passing on a recipe for a burrito-style Mediterranean Vegetable Wrap that she had become almost addicted to from a local sandwich bar; " The tortilla is spread with a sort of thick ratatouille and then covered with femme fresh." She had, of course, meant "creme fresh" aka creme fraiche.

A Google search gives 6.8 million reults when you enter "food is better than sex".
Thursday June 17th 2010, 7:42 AM
Comment by: Catherine M. (East Brighton Australia)
I cannot stand it when someone says "I did it off my own back" instead of "off my own bat".

I also once heard someone (extremely well-paid consultant) pronounce hyperbole as "high-per-bowl", although that's a mispronunciation rather than a malapropism.

Don't get me started on "misproNOUNciation", either...

Great item, btw.
Thursday June 17th 2010, 8:20 AM
Comment by: Tom W. (New York, NY)
This is only marginally germane to today's column but increasingly I see a sum such as $30 written as 30$. Where do these morons come from? Do they never read anything at all? To my knowledge there is not a currency in the world that is written with the symbol after the amount.

The fact that the sum is pronounced "thirty dollars" does not let the miscreants off the hook one whit.

Thanks for letting me rant. I feel better now.
Thursday June 17th 2010, 8:24 AM
Comment by: Kristyn B. (Ventura, CA)
I have a friend who mixes up taut and taunt. It makes me crazy every time I hear it.
Thursday June 17th 2010, 8:45 AM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
There's a website dedicated to tracking the more justifiable confusions (justifiable because the new spelling suggests a reasonable way to understand the meaning of the misspelled word--reasonable doesn't mean standard or correct, though). They're called eggcorns on the website, because "eggcorn" qualified as a reasonable misspelling of acorn. This is the website's URL: http://eggcorns.lascribe.net. Once you get over the prescriptivist choke and churning stomach, these creative malapropisms are very amusing.
Thursday June 17th 2010, 9:55 AM
Comment by: Laura L.
This very morning I heard an improper usage of the term "beg the question" on NPR. It made me feel both sad and superior at the same time. Hmmm.
Thursday June 17th 2010, 10:56 AM
Comment by: Sharon D. (Topeka, KS)
I have almost come to terms with the current use of "healthy" when the speaker or writer means "healthful." I am no longer threatening to boycott Healthy Choice frozen entrees. I have quit telling people their food is not healthy -- it's dead.

But in the gardening advice column in Saturday's paper, the columnist wrote that, if some of your earlier plantings have died, there's still time to go to a local nursery and buy healthful plants. And she was not talking about tomatoes and cucumbers; she was talking about petunias and marigolds.
Thursday June 17th 2010, 12:10 PM
Comment by: Christine B.
One of the many great things about VT and the contributions are the tangents provided by the links. I just spent an hour enjoying eggcorns.com and cannot wait to share it with my grandson. Thank you Anon!
Thursday June 17th 2010, 12:23 PM
Comment by: Steve H.
I once knew a fellow architect who, with straight face, recommended a "statutory bronze" metal finish to his client.....rather than the intended "statuary"! Not a malapropism, but how about "ma-son-a-ry" instead of "ma-son-ry"? I hear that all the time......
Thursday June 17th 2010, 1:20 PM
Comment by: Judith M. G. (Wilmette, IL)
I'm afraid I enjoy most of the malapropisms that I read or hear too much to challenge the makers. Norm Crosby has always been my favorite comedian. In fact, compared to him, Mrs. Malaprop spoke like a upper class British call girl.

Had Joseph L. Mankiewicz written "Letter to Three Wives" a decade later, he would have reviled "television English" rather than radio English. Especially, the construction: "pick you and I up at the station" -- Perhaps, more a grammar error, but generations of casual speaker have interchanged those pronouns. I find it much more grating as over-correction.

However, there is a protocol for interpersonal redaction and, sadly, loud horse-laughs and a nine-iron to the brain are never permitted. That's why, when I do correct word usage or pronunciation, it's for someone who has asked for the help and, as I don't play golf, we can keep a private matter.

And, yes, I'm with you about hesitating to correct mispronunciation especially now that I'm meeting a lot of book addicts who never heard anyone speak most of the amazing words they've encountered. Somehow, I hate to break the illusion.

Thanks for a great column.
Thursday June 17th 2010, 1:42 PM
Comment by: Lois W. (Las Vegas, NV)
Having reached the age of diminished hearing, my husband and I often rely on the Closed Captioning provided by most TV programs. We have noticed that "chattering" has now replaced "chatting" by all the providers of this service. VT acknowledges what we have always thought: animals, and particularly birds, chatter; people chat.
A once previous annoyance to us, is a word which we feel sure will eventually become a part of our language is: conversate, conversating. I say "previous" because it no longer is, and - well, why not? We just smile now...
Thursday June 17th 2010, 1:56 PM
Comment by: Lyn P.
It's those of us who were taught to read using the 'look say' method in the '50s who are completely clueless as to how to pronouce what we've never heard...sadly, a whole generation of readers who commit these ear-gratingly horrid mangling of words. 'But it seemed like a good idea at the time' has ruint the spoken words of many; who knows what other afflictions that justification for failure to consider conseguences has wrought amongst us. I google for pronunciation *sigh* it's the only reasonable way to compensate.
Thursday June 17th 2010, 3:24 PM
Comment by: Lisa K. (Providence, RI)
Ah, an appropriate forum to vent my favorite malapropism! 'It's a mute point'... I have heard this in so many meetings that I think I'm able to keep my cringe internal. Points do not have vocal cords! It's a moot point.
Thursday June 17th 2010, 3:41 PM
Comment by: Edward A. (New York, NY)
@Catherine M.

I heard the CEO of a fortune 500 oil company make a similar mistake with hyperbole. He mis-pronounced it, "hyper bull".

This was particularly confusing as he was clearly talking about an exaggeration. So it initially seemed that he meant, "not just 'bull', but 'hyper bull' ". Somewhat crude, but makes sense.

I thought that before realizing he really meant (or was trying to say) hyperbole.
Thursday June 17th 2010, 3:46 PM
Comment by: Therese S. (Detroit, MI)
Ok - my personal favorite:
'flustrated' and 'frustrated'
Flustrated: flustered, agitated
Frustrated: disappointed, thwarted, dissatisfied

I become frustrated when I hear someone use the word flustrated in its stead...frustrated enough to become so flustrated that I consider poking myself in the eye with a sharp pencil. Now that's flustrated!
Thursday June 17th 2010, 7:29 PM
Comment by: Rahla L.
Any way we can help our fellow "scholars" distinguish between "its" and "it's?" Drives me nuts!!
Thursday June 17th 2010, 8:03 PM
Comment by: Rev G.
I always find VT helpful: great article and comments!
Thursday June 17th 2010, 11:03 PM
Comment by: Deborah F. (West Chester, OH)
Thanks - I'm always the bad guy when I point out a malapropism, but I agree that it's better to google it (or hear your mistake from a friend). Seriously. Friends don't let friends say femme fraiche...
Friday June 18th 2010, 2:41 PM
Comment by: Syzygy
Great (or grate) article. My irritation is in the phrase, "I could care less." When I try correct the speaker, they don't seem to understand the mistake! So, I have surrendered... I couldn't care less.

As to how one tells another about their malapropisms, I use the "zipper protocol". If the speaker is a guy, how do you tell him his zipper is unclosed? If you know him well enough that you would cringe if he was embarrassed being seen so exposed, you tell him in private, with a whisper or a hand signal.

On the other hand, if you follow the guy around the office just to hear him sound off like an idiot, don't bother telling him!

If the speaker is a woman... well, you get the idea.
Friday June 18th 2010, 3:06 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
Although verbal examples, here are a few of my favorites from a co-worker.

- bolvious (oblivious)

- Sore to speak (so to speak)

- Techno-suavey (techo-savvy)

- eckspecialy (especially)

- veritable data (variable data)

- brehfuss (breakfast)

- stold (stole)


Usage examples:

"I pretty bolivious; eckspecialy when it comes to veritable data. I'm just not very techno-suavey, sore to speak."

"I went to the lunchroom and someone stold my brehfuss."
Friday June 18th 2010, 7:12 PM
Comment by: Dennis B.
Friends,

If you are going to go on about malapropisms, how about giving us the provenance or anyway a few words on the long and happy life of Mrs. Malaprop?

Dennis B
Friday June 18th 2010, 11:52 PM
Comment by: Tamara H. (Indianapolis, IN)
I must second the vote for "mute point" as the all-time worst malapropism. My mother misuses the phrase on a regular basis, and while I have on occasion corrected her, she never seems able to break the habit. It's horrifically annoying.

A friend has occasionally referred to "artesians" when she meant "artisans". I simply do not know how to correct her without sounding like a know-it-all.

My recent favorite place to find examples of poor language is Craig's List. I have seen more than one advertisement for "rod iron" rather than "wrought iron". This article points out quite correctly that when writing, one has time to ponder words a bit more carefully than when speaking, thus avoiding potential mistakes. However, as you can see from the above example, had the writers of the ads for "rod iron" spoken their words, you may never have known they were incorrect. In some cases perhaps you can get away with spoken malapropisms more so than written ones!
Sunday June 20th 2010, 1:20 AM
Comment by: Dennis B.
Perhaps the people writing "rod iron" for "wrought iron" are non-native speakers of English who are struggling with our spelling mysteries.
Monday June 21st 2010, 2:48 AM
Comment by: Marta M. (Sherman Oaks, CA)
Nowdays we also write the same way we speak. This has even become somewhat accepted in our modern technological language. For instance, texting someone "good nite" on the phone instead of "good night" is a shorter, easier, faster version that is normalized especially among the youth, who got to be fast and efficient in their devices' character use. The same applies to using just the letter "d" for the word "the" or "u" for "you" and soforth. These are now the new, modified forms of "old" words prooving once more the existance of language evolution...
Monday June 21st 2010, 12:28 PM
Comment by: Dennis B.
Not so new as you may think. When I was a youngster growing up in Chicago in the 1950s, one of the local newspapers, "The Chicago Tribune," used simplified spellings for some words: tho for though, nite for night, thru for through. (Or so I recall.)
Tuesday June 22nd 2010, 8:40 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
I have two friends from the south. They both say, 'Across the streek', instead of 'across the street'. I asked
the one with the best sense of humor why she says 'steek' instead of street'. Embarrassed, she started
to stammer but never gave me a coherent answer. In subsequent conversations, she has fessed up that she
talks different from her colleagues. She is a teacher in the juvenile prison system. Fortunately her long
suit is math and touching the hearts of young criminals. She finds that many become criminals because of their illiteracy. She is good at reframing their attitudes and changing their self image because they deem her as imperfect also. They see she has made something of herself and feel encouraged that they can turn their lives around. This not an excuse for improper language. I read many comments here that disgust me also. My friend has given me another perspective on the subject.
Tuesday June 22nd 2010, 2:19 PM
Comment by: Dennis B.
Who was Mrs. Malaprop?

from Wikipedia

The word malapropos is an adjective or adverb meaning "inappropriate" or "inappropriately", derived from the French phrase mal à propos (literally "ill-suited").[1] The earliest English usage of the word cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1630. Malaprop used in the linguistic sense was first used by Lord Byron in 1814 according to the OED.

The terms malapropism and the earlier variant malaprop come from Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 play The Rivals, and in particular the character Mrs. Malaprop. Sheridan presumably named his character Mrs. Malaprop, who frequently misspoke (to great comic effect), in joking reference to the word malapropos.

The alternative term "Dogberryism" comes from the 1598 Shakespearean play Much Ado About Nothing, in which the character Dogberry produces many malapropisms with humorous effect.[2
Tuesday June 22nd 2010, 2:21 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
For more on Mrs. Malaprop, follow the link to Simon and Julia's previous column on malapropisms.
Friday August 13th 2010, 9:01 AM
Comment by: Jacqueline M. (Ottawa Canada)
A great article and very interesting comments.

Re. Tom W: In French one uses 30$.

Re. Judith: For many years I came across the word "chagrin" in reading. I never used it, but thought of it being pronounced as "chargin" (soft g). Then, one day, a friend said, "Much to my chagrin ... " and I realised that mentally I had been misspronouncing it.

Re El: She notes that her friend talks "different" rather than "differently". Is this deliberate? I see this sort of thing so often that I suspect the adverbial form is disappearing from English.

Some of the words I see misused are: "penultimate", clearly used to mean "the best or greatest"; "bacteria" used a a singular (yesterday's newspaper where it was treated both as a singular and plural); and finally "fulsome" used to mean "full" or big. My favourite (obviously Canadian spelling)was a description of a woman with "fulsome breasts". I think the writer meant that she had big boobs. However, upon reflection, I decided that maybe fulsome was well used according to one dictionary definition, "exaggerated and insincere". If the breasts were very large, they could be called "exaggerated" and if they were that way because they were surgically enhanced, not natural, they were also "insincere".

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Prostate With Grief
- 24 Comments
Simon and Julia help you avoid coming off like the reincarnation of Mrs. Malaprop.