Mrs. Malaprop was a character in Richard Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals and was so-named because she routinely chose the wrong (though very similar) word whenever she opened her mouth. At one point in this convoluted comedy of errors, Mrs. Malaprop calls her niece Lydia as headstrong as “an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” Did she mean to say “alligator,” do you suppose?
The fictional Mrs. Malaprop gave us the word malapropism. Sheridan formed his character’s name from the French term mal à propos, meaning, appropriately enough, “inappropriate.” Having been a copy editor for the past 20 years, I’ve gotten pretty good at noticing when someone writes “illicit” when he means “elicit” or says something like, “Jesus healed leopards.”
The little mix-ups I’ve shared here may not officially be malapropisms, but it’s always funny (and often inappropriate) when people honestly misunderstand what others say.
One morning when my older son, Luke, was four years old, I helped him blow his nose. There was still some sticky stuff in there, so I said, “I’ll have to use a Q-tip to get that out.”
“No, not a cucumber!” he yelled.
When Luke was about six years old, the topic of JFK’s assassination came up. I mentioned the name Jack Ruby, and Luke asked who he was.
“He’s the guy who killed Lee Harvey Oswald,” I replied.
One day, when my boys were much older, I ran into a quilt shop to buy a few supplies for a class I had signed up for. The woman helping me asked if I wanted to look at fabric, but I said I didn’t have time right then.
“My cherubic children are waiting in the car,” I explained, using one of my favorite phrases.
“You have eleven children in your car?” she exclaimed. (I’m still not sure how she got eleven from cherubic, but never mind that.)
“No,” I replied. “My cherubic children! I can’t even fit eleven kids in my car!” (As if that were the only issue.)
I called the local library to ask if I could donate some used college textbooks.
“Do you accept hardcover textbooks?” I asked the librarian.
“Hardcore sex books?” she asked incredulously.
“No! Hard . . . cover . . . text . . . books!” I repeated with emphasis. We both guffawed.
“Would you care for a soft peppermint?” my friend William asked me one day.
“A salt-and-pepper mint? What the heck is that?” I asked, thinking this was a new trend in candy.
“No, a soft peppermint.” He chuckled and produced a wrapped, red-and-white glob from his pocket.
“Oh,” I responded sheepishly.
Yup, people are often their funniest when they’re not trying to be.