Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

 

Dear Mr. Lederer, You’re hilarious. Thanks so much for entertaining and educating us. Speaking of hilarious, one of my favorite characters is Mrs. Malaprop. Surely she’s one of yours, too.

— Valerie Swink, Encinitas

When people misuse words in an illiterate but humorous manner, we call the result a malapropism. The word echoes the name of Mrs. Malaprop (from the French mal a propos, “not appropriate”), a character who first strode the stage in 1775, 240 years ago, in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comedy “The Rivals.” Mrs. Malaprop was a garrulous “old weather-beaten she dragon” who took special pride in her use of the King’s English but who, all the same, unfailingly mangled big words: “Sure, if I reprehend anything in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!” She meant, of course, that if she comprehended anything, it was a nice arrangement of epithets.

From “The Rivals,” here are some more of Mrs. M’s most malapropriate malapropisms:

• Then, sir, she should have a supercilious knowledge in account; — and as she grew up, I should have her instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious countries.

• She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.

• Illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.

• He’s the very pineapple of politeness.

The giddy ghost of Mrs. Malaprop continues to haunt the hallowed halls of language. Here are some authentic, certified, unretouched modern-day malapropisms. As Dave Barry, my fellow Haverford College alumnus would say, I’m not making these up:

• If you wish to submit a recipe for publication in the cookbook, please include a short antidote concerning it.

• I don’t want to cast asparagus at my opponent.

• The mountain is named for the Reverend Starr King, who was an invertebrate climber.

• The fun and excitement of childhood are nothing compared to the fun and excitement of adultery.

• Ortiz is the most recent recipient of the pretentious Con Edison Athlete of the Week Award.

• Senators are chosen as committee chairmen on the basis of senility.

• I refuse to answer that question. It’s too suppository.

• I took up aerobics to help maintain my well-propositioned figure.

• Medieval cathedrals were supported by flying buttocks.

• The marriage was consummated on the altar.

• The food in our cafeteria is so bad it’s not fit for human constipation.

Here’s a malapropistic quiz. In the real-life malapropisms below, identify the right word that the speaker or writer has mangled:

1. I am privileged to speak at this millstone in the history of the college.

2. In Venice, the people travel around the canals in gorgonzolas.

3. I don’t want to cast asparagus at my opponent.

4. Who do you think you are, some kind of hexagon of virtue?

5. We have to deal seriously with this offense as a detergent to others.

6. He died interstate.

7. Too many Americans lead a sedimentary life.

8. The deceased was a vicarious reader.

9. They’ve decided to raise my benefits, and they’re making them radioactive.

10. The only sure-fire way to avoid teenage pregnancy is through obstinance.

Answers: 1. milestone 2. gondolas 3. aspersions 4. paragon 5. deterrent 6. intestate 7. sedentary 8. voracious 9. retroactive 10. abstinence