English is a complicated language, full of all sorts of complex words and hidden meanings. Non-native English speakers often struggle to wrap their heads around our unusual turns of phrase. Of course, sometimes even the natives make a slip or two.
Sometimes it’s unintentional. One of my favorite memories of my kids is this one:
I had just picked up my kids from school (Cameron from kindergarten and the two littles from daycare). The daycare is at the top of a very steep hill, and I had just begun to navigate toward the slope when I heard a deep groan from the backseat. “Ohhh, man, I feel like I’m drunk.”
Y’all, I nearly steered off the side of the hill. I hit the brakes, put the truck in park, and forced myself to take three deep breaths before turning around to confront my son. For the record–we don’t drink, so I was pretty upset that he even knew the word.
“Cameron?” My voice was thick with syrup. An older kid would have sensed the warning signs, but he didn’t. “What does that mean, buddy?”
He sighed and put a hand on his stomach. “Oh, man, mom, I done drinked so much chocolate milk that it makes sloshy sounds in my belly when I move. Disn’t dat what it means to be drunk?”
Today, I’d like to talk to you about a specific kind of mixed-up meaning. It’s called a malapropism. Malapropisms happen when you mix up the sound of a phrase, like one of my friends once did when she complained about being “soak and wet” instead of “soaking wet”.
Our celebrity and politician friends are the source of quite a few since they’re so frequently faced with a microphone inches from their nose. You might have even said one of these yourself:
- For all intensive purposes – what the speaker means is for all intents and purposes
- He reeked havoc – one of my favorites. Reek here means something that smells bad. Wreak means to cause damage.
- Pacifically – Are we in the Pacific Ocean? We mean specifically
What about these, said by (or about) famous people?
- “He eludes confidence” – said about Barack Obama. The speaker meant exudes
- “Texas has a lot of electrical votes”, Yogi Berra once said. He meant electoral
- Mike Tyson, maybe a bit punch drunk, said he would “fade to Bolivia”, but he probably meant oblivion
Malapropisms can be a fun thing to use in your writing, provided that you use them intentionally. One of my favorite guilty pleasures is a series of mysteries that includes a character who’s constantly making little mistakes like these. It’s a great way to distinguish her from the other characters in the novels. There are other things you can try, too. How will you set your characters apart?
About Micki Clark
Micki Clark is the author of Don’t Ask Me to Leave, published in March 2017. Don’t Ask Me to Leave is a modern-day retelling of the Biblical story of Ruth and Naomi, set in beautiful Montgomery County, Kentucky. Follow her on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/AuthorMickiSClark) and Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/MickiSClark).
Newlywed Rachel Miller has everything she could want from life—the perfect husband, her dream job, and a cute little house in the country—but the daydream is shattered when her husband is killed in a tragic accident. Her mother-in-law, Nadine, takes her in as she tries to pick up the pieces, and their handsome neighbor Beau is willing to help…if Rachel will let him. Does she dare open her heart for a second chance at love?