On the Use and Abuse of Knowledge . . . More on Malapropisms from Bryan Garner

Book case with booksMy last blog posting looked at lost literary references and “malapropisms” (errors in references that usually have a comic effect).

Perhaps coincidentally, one of Bryan Garner’s “Usage Tips of the Day” this week delved further into malapropisms, arguing that “deliberate errors in reference go back to Shakespeare’s day” and not only to Sheridan’s 18th Century play (The Rivals) whose character (Mrs. Malaprop, named for “mal à propos,” or “inappropriately” ) gave the rhetorical strategy its name.

Garner says that in a malapropism “deliberate errors . . . [are] usually for comic effect,” always in the mouths of lower class characters who are unsuccessfully aping the usage of their social and intellectual betters and saying something quite different (sometimes scandalously different) from what they meant to say” (Garner, March 17, 2015).

An example of Shakespeare’s use of malapropism that Garner cites is Elbow (the “incompetent constable in Measure for Measure) who refers to a bawdy house as a “respected [suspected] house.”

I recall Mrs. Malaprop referring to another character in The Rivals as “the very pineapple [pinnacle] of politeness.”

Malapropisms usually have a comic effect, but that effect relies on the reader having greater knowledge and recognition than the incompetent character. In less obvious examples, some 21st Century readers won’t get the joke. They won’t recognize the error.

Some 21st Century readers don’t recognize literary allusions, be they straightforward or ironic. Literary history and culture are definitely being lost, when students would rather “google” a quotation than research and read the original text.

The problem isn’t limited to studies of academic English literature. Garner cites a modern lawyer’s confusion between “meretricious” (superficially attractive but false) and “meritorious” (likely to succeed on the merits of the case).

Here are some others that he cites, also from the field of law:

“infinitesimal” (very small) vs. “infinite” (boundless)

“nefarious” (evil) vs. “multifarious” (greatly varied)

“voracity” (greediness with food) vs. “veracity” (truthfulness)

“serial” (consisting of or taking place in a series) vs “surreal”   (bizarre, having qualities of surrealism)

Journalists also often cite confusions such as that between “infamous” (terrible) and “famous” (well known) in a story referring to the “crime that occurred at the infamous Stanfield’s Underwear factory.”

Younger generations may view the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) or other reference volumes online now, but some won’t bother.  Canonical texts that I was trained to read as an undergraduate are increasingly overlooked (and not only by the students in class who have always preferred to watch “the movie,” instead of reading the book  . . . .)

I don’t mean to say that we are not gaining culturally through Rap or Hip Hop music, poetry contests over social media and the like. But in a time when technology experts sing the praises of how portable devices vastly improve our lives, we should recognize that they also gobble up time and energy that were once invested in old-fashioned reading.

If you work with or hire a freelance writer and/or editor, how important is it to you that they know their literary (or legal or journalistic) history, terminology and avoid malapropisms or other errors?

How much more do people need to read and study in order to build and maintain a literary and/or historical background that is important for all disciplines of writing — be it academic, creative, journalism, business writing or another?

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