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 Merriam-Webster.com 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):
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!