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Prostate With Grief

Want to avoid using words that "sound somewhat like the ones intended but are ludicrously wrong in the context"? Let our Editorial Emergency team, Simon Glickman and Julia Rubiner, help you to avoid coming off like the reincarnation of Mrs. Malaprop!

We got such an outpouring of "I know, right?" on our piece "She Literally Misused the Word" that we've decided to follow through on an earlier promise we made, when we wrote: "Next time: Malapropisms — you know, when people say distract when they mean detract, or antidote when they mean anecdote."

When the HBO series "The Sopranos" was on the air, many of you likely delighted in the mangled utterances of beloved capo/film producer Carmine "Little Carmine" Lupertazzi, Jr., portrayed by the wonderful Ray Abruzzo. "You're very observant: the sacred and the propane" and "There's no stigmata connected with going to a shrink" are two of our favorites. (For more "Sopranos"-speak, click here.) And I'd even hazard that a goodly percentage of you understand how Little Carmine is, in many ways, a descendant of the ever mis-speaking Mrs. Malaprop, easily the most memorable character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play "The Rivals."

For those unfamiliar with that 18th-century work, the name "Mrs. Malaprop" is a play on the French phrase mal à propos, which translates as "ill-suited." Our good friends at credit the playwright Sheridan himself as the source of the word "malapropism," attesting, "Etymology: Mrs. Malaprop, character noted for her misuse of words in R. B. Sheridan's comedy 'The Rivals' (1775)." M-W defines malapropism thus: "The usually unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase; especially: the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context."

Malapropisms are typically accidental, unless you're some kind of comedian and malapropisms are your act. With that in mind, you'd be wise not to fall prey to these common confusions (again, special thanks to Merriam-Webster Online):

Anecdote: a usually short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident
Antidote: a remedy to counteract the effects of poison; something that relieves, prevents, or counteracts

Bear in mind that the anti- in antidote refers to fighting off poison or other dangers. Whereas, if you like, a person who tells a lot of aNECdotes can be a pain in the NECK.

Prospective: relating to or effective in the future; likely to come about; expected [the prospective benefits of this law]
Perspective: the interrelation in which a subject or its parts are mentally viewed [places the issues in proper perspective]

It helps to remember the relationship between prospective and prospect — both refer to future possibility.

Prostrate: stretched out with face on the ground in adoration or submission; lying flat; completely overcome and lacking vitality, will, or power to rise; trailing on the ground
Prostate: a firm, partly muscular, partly glandular body that is situated about the base of the mammalian male urethra and secretes an alkaline viscid fluid

Avoid this comical conflation by recalling that prostrate contains a second "r," which is the first letter in religion, a thing that might require you to prostrate yourself. On the other hand, trouble with the aforementioned gland can put one in a terrible STATE.

That said, I, personally, so fear mixing up those last two that I avoid the word prostrate at all costs. What I lose in not allowing myself to reach for prostrate is so much less than if I declared myself "prostate from the heat."

And though we do encourage you to use big words, if you have any doubt at all about your vocabulary, play it safe by going for the smaller (or at least more familiar) word. Later, look up the word you almost used to make sure you were going to use it correctly. If you were going to use it correctly, next time you'll deploy it without hesitation; if you weren't going to use it correctly, you've saved yourself a world of hurt. You may even want to consult a professional word wrangler — sadly, malapropisms are not limited to spoken expression, as the New York Times illustrated last year when it referred to Senator John McCain as "the perspective Republican nominee."

"But what about distract and detract?" you may be wondering. Well, a funny thing happened on our way to differentiating them; turns out they're actually related. Check it out:

Distract: to turn aside: divert; to draw or direct (as one's attention) to a different object or in different directions at the same time [was distracted by a sudden noise]
Detract: divert [detract attention]; to diminish the importance, value, or effectiveness of something; often used with from [small errors that do not seriously detract from the book]

So, according to M-W, both distract and detract are synonymous with divert and in both definitions, the word is further defined by its association with "attention." Who knew?

Any malapropisms you'd like to share? Heard anyone say, "For all intensive purposes" lately?  Let us know 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:

Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 2:38 AM
Comment by: Madrigal (CROYDON Australia)
I liked your article. I love malapropisms. I have to stop myself from grabbing a pen and writing them down when I hear them in conversation - too rude - although I always regret it when I can't remember them later.

I collected some of the funnier malapropisms in a promotional blog I wrote last year. I think you might find some of it amusing! Forgive the self promotion!
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 3:20 AM
Comment by: Gerry D. (Brasted United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Malapropisms are always good fun if you understand the meaning of the two words in question. In the case of the prostate, I think you may be politely avoiding a clearer definition. Unfortunately because of cancer, we all need to know that the prostate is a small gland in the pelvis that is only found in men. It is located between the penis and the bladder, and surrounds the urethra (the tube that carries urine from the bladder to the penis).
The main function of the prostate is to help with the production of semen. In the UK, one man dies every day from prostate cancer but this can be dramatically reduced through awareness of the symptoms.

Apologies for sounding a serious note to a fun article.
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 3:49 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
I have a friend who should be named Mr. Malaprop. My favorites are "ambidextrous" instead of "schizophrenic," and "let's save it for prosperity" instead of "posterity."
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 5:16 AM
Comment by: John M.
My mother never saw the play but must have gotten the malaprop disease by osmosis.

Here are two of my favorites:

Soup Latrine for Soup Tureen.

When a man she worked with hurt his back, she said that he was working Spasmodically. She meant sporadically, although you can see the logic in her choice since the guy was having back spasms that kept him from working regularly.
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 5:32 AM
Comment by: Trish M.
At a conference I invited the speakers to go to a French resturant called "La Brassiere" !!!
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 5:41 AM
Comment by: Simon Albrecht (Maidenhead United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
A cousin, discussing two gay women in the community, living together, refers to them as "hermaphrodites" rather than "homosexuals". Not quite a malapropism, although it is ludicrous; more a fear perhaps of using the word itself.
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 8:18 AM
Comment by: Michael H. (Buffalo, NY)
Courtesy of Beavis & Butt-head: when people attempt to disguise their true identity, they are traveling "in burrito" instead of incognito!
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 8:38 AM
Comment by: Paula E.
Two malapropisms I run across often are "mute point" instead of moot point(which, when you think about it, almost makes sense)and vice-versa instead of etc. The latter feels a bit like you've turned a list over on its head.
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 8:53 AM
Comment by: Naomi B.
There's the ever-misused affect / effect, both of which can be verbs or nouns; and pawn off instead of palm off. But my favorite genuine malapropism came when a friend described the action of his boss, a man who is very full of himself and who was attempting to perpetrate a scam on someone: "He made a conceited effort to convince him."
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 9:01 AM
Comment by: Sharron T. (Ottawa Canada)
Surely, you're not incinerating malapropisms are a common thing! :-)
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 9:04 AM
Comment by: Harvey B. (Sheboygan, WI)
One I've heard often used in meetings where the presenter was describing an audible or visual hook for a commercial is pneumonic device instead of mnemonic device. It makes me want to cough up a lung.
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 9:44 AM
Comment by: Thomas M. (Bothell, WA)
My daughter cringes everytime we look into the sky and notice the jet entrails and has quit wondering why we don't travel in the HIV lane on the freeway. Both phrases came from the refreshing innocence of her youth.
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 10:11 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
Much casting of nasturtiums (family joke - not a "real' one).
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 10:41 AM
Comment by: Elisa B. (Addison, TX)
I can't remember jokes to save my life. Couldn't even read one properly from a page (no sense of the long form timing and patience.) I inherited both of a love of words (a poet) and of dark witticism, thus have developed a "fly by the seat of the pants" humor that interjects malapropisms when "appropriate." It delights my friends with rich vocabularies, and probably irritates others. But you do what you can!
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 1:32 PM
Comment by: Lot King (Lititz, PA)
I remembern someone saying "I can detest to that".
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 2:08 PM
Comment by: Xerobates
You might say he was prostrate with prostate problems!
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 2:52 PM
Comment by: Rain
When my son was three, he called a neighbour's dog a "bloomin' shepherd." I enjoy hearing malapropisms, and wonder if they occur more often in people whose learning style is aural rather than visual.
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 4:51 PM
Comment by: Shayne T.
I once wrote a term paper for university describing a sarcophagus with a relief of Horus the Falcon God hovering over the body of the dead pharaoh. I miscued. I wanted to write, "Horus the Falcon God hovering over the 'prostrate' body of the pharaoh." I (like others) missed the second 'r' in prostrate, which actually made more sense when you looked at the relief. I think the prof thought I did it intentionally. I was so worried about actually doing it, I actually did it. Dang!!!!! That was 25 years ago and I'm still embarrassed. . . especially when I think about how prominent the 'prostate' anatomy was exaggerated in the relief sculpture.
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 5:19 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Thank you for the marvellous laugh or two or three or four or more!

Crankshaft would be so proud! (He's a title comic character who is a walking - or drawing - malaprop who makes great use of mixed metaphors, too!)

As a 'mixed metaphor' we had a casee here of someone who wanted authorities to "take the bull by the tail (maybe he was familiar with WC Fields) and look it in the eye!"
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 5:24 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
"...I once wrote a term paper for university describing a sarcophagus with a relief of Horus the Falcon God hovering over the body of the dead pharaoh..."

I read that at first without an 'a' before relief. Gives a whole nother meaning to it! LOL
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 6:38 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
There is another mispronunciation that my wife makes that drives me crazy.
How do you get people to even say the correct word?
"K-MARK" instead of "K-mart" is just one of many.
I know it isn't a malapropism, but is still one of those mistakes OTHERS make that annoy!
Tuesday September 22nd 2009, 6:40 PM
Comment by: Nena D. (W Hartford, CT)
Three examples I heard years ago, but still remember because they are so vivid:
"Our company is losing employees through nutrition." [Could even be true, I suppose, given recent food recalls. . ]

"He said it felt like an albacore around his neck."

Police threw an accordian around the block.

Another very recent radio example-- an interviewee said, "I unabashfully support that statement."
Thursday September 24th 2009, 11:26 AM
Comment by: Becky C.
The moot/mute one drives me crazy, too. But more common in my field are people who are supposed to be managers referring to the "physical year" instead of "fiscal year". Another that I cannot get out of my mind is referring to NASA as "Nassau".
Friday September 25th 2009, 4:04 PM
Comment by: soledad (IL)
I'm not sure it qualifies as a true malapropism, more a less-than-cemented-to-the-brain idiomatic fluency as my wife is a native Pole, but I think it's so cute and funny when she says, "Throw up the garbage," instead of "Throw out...."

And if she wasn't such a damn good cook, I could easily comply to the former!

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