Monday, 26 October 2020

Mrs Malaprop walks among us

Mrs Malaprop was a character created by English playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan in his play The Rivals (1775). Her name is a nod to the French expression mal à propos, or inappropriate. What Mrs M does is misuse words, in much the same way as Dogberry does in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, which was one of my A level set texts (we also had King Lear, thank God).

Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals (1895)


We recently re-watched the DVD of Kenneth Branagh's sundrenched film of Much Ado, in which Dogberry was played by Michael Keaton and his sidekick Verges by Ben Elton, and they were so excruciatingly unfunny as to de-rail an otherwise excellent version (Has anyone ever seen a funny Dogberry?)

Anyway, Dogberry and Mrs Malaprop both use the wrong words "to comic effect," as Wikipedia assures us. Mrs M refers to someone as "the pineapple of perfection," which is actually quite nice (mistake for "pinnacle"). And I'm afraid, thanks to her, that one daughter and I use "derangements" when talking about plans we are making. Dogberry is called "tedious" by Leonato, which he definitely is, though Dogberry takes it as a compliment, meaning goodness knows what.


Anyway, why am I conjuring up Mrs Malaprop and Dogberry in today's post?  Because they are alive and well in the British media. Witness the pervasive "honing in" as used on Radio 4 last week, in describing tactics for coping with You Know What. 

The phrase is, of course, "homing in," like a missile or a bit like a pigeon, but "honing" conveys the idea of precision, so has misled the speaker.

I had a friend many years ago who used to say "when push comes to pull," instead of "when push comes to shove." And another acquaintance who thought that "ultimatum" meant something like "ultimate aim in life," as in "her ultimatum was to be a secretary." These don't exactly count as malapropisms; maybe they are "eggcorns."

Do give me examples of malapropisms you have heard or seen.

Word of the week: translocation

No good looking this up on the Internet: you will get a "chromosomal abnormality." It is now being used as a description of a method of moving soil from the site of the HS2 route to another place so that its biodiversity might be preserved. It could of course mean "enforced migration" or describe what Donald Trump had done to immigrants' children, 545 of whom have not been able to be re-united with their parents.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Word of the Week

I'm instituting a new feature: word (or phrase) of the week. It might lead on to an aspect of grammar, punctuation or vocabulary or might be tacked on to the end of a post about something else but there will be a new one to analyse and brood over every week.

It will come as no surprise that this week's word is circuit-breaker.

Here is Wikipedia's definition: "A circuit breaker is an automatically operated electrical switch designed to protect an electrical circuit from damage caused by excess current from an overload or short circuit. Its basic function is to interrupt current flow after a fault is detected. Unlike a fuse, which operates once and then must be replaced, a circuit breaker can be reset (either manually or automatically) to resume normal operation."

I'll tell you something else it is at the moment: a metaphor. For the government of Wales and perhaps soon that of N.Ireland, Scotland and the whole of the UK is not literally going to install electrical switches anywhere. They are going to attempt to halt the spread of Corona Virus by avoiding an overload of cases in their area. So "circuit-break(er)" or "fire-break" in the case of Wales is a technical term being used metaphorically.

What is the difference between a metaphor and a simile? A metaphor takes a word or phrase from one semantic field and applies it to another. For example, "the handling of the pandemic has been a total car crash." No actual cars have been involved; it's a metaphor.

A simile (from the Latin "similis" = "like") says that something is like something else. "A total lockdown (metaphor) acts like a circuit-breaker (simile)." It makes the comparison clear which the metaphor just implies.

Both metaphor and simile are "figures of speech." (There are loads more, which might crop up in future weeks).

Monday, 12 October 2020

Nobody likes a pedant

"1a : one who is unimaginative or who unduly emphasizes minutiae in the presentation or use of knowledge. b : one who makes a show of knowledge. c : a formalist or precisionist in teaching."

This is the Merriam Webster dictionary definition of "pedant." You see you have to get to the third possibility before you find anything positive said. No-one enjoys being corrected so pedants tend to be unpopular. But if you are a pedant, like me (unapologetically so), you actually spend a lot of time not correcting people and biting your tongue.

Just this morning on Facebook I have seen the following:

1. Two children's story's

2.  "Who's school" and "stationary" for "stationery"

3. My friend showed x and I a new way ...

4. Under bed draws

The only one I commented on was the second - because it was part of a meme pointing out that teachers were not getting pay rises, though MPs were.  It seemed to be a bad place to make grammatical or vocabulary mistakes. Even so, someone replied that the message was more important than proofreading. No doubt but it would have been a better post without them.

The first was in an inquiry to a children's book group I belong to; the writer is a newbie and someone I don't know so it would have been unkind to correct her.

The third is common even among people "educated" at Eton. It is just plain wrong. And so easy not to do! Just take out the other person. You would never say "my friend showed I," unless you were speaking dialect. It was in a post by a published author too.

The fourth is seen every day in FB advertisements for items for sale such as "chests of draws."[sic] But this one made me think of Tracy Emin's unmade bed installation.

In an article in the Guardian headed "Why do pedants pedant" David Steele concludes: "So, why do pedants pedant? We don’t really know, but some tangential studies infer it’s to do with a mixture of personality, status-signalling and group identification."


I couldn't find a picture of a pedant, but you can take the one at the top of this post as a real life example. And here is a picture of a "chest of draws," actually so labelled on Wikimedia Commons. Sigh.



Monday, 5 October 2020

New words

Grammar Grandma takes requests! Today, new words and phrases, technically known as "neologisms."

These arouse strong feelings and the request for this post included the statement, "we like 'Normality' which is a Nice Word, and ... we hate 'Normalcy' which is a Very Horrid Word Indeed." Nice words and Horrid Words tend to be defined in the eye of the beholder but let's look at these two.

"Normality"is much older than "normalcy," and, as so often with words that annoy UK speakers of English, the latter is an American import.

                                              Warren G. Harding, who did not invent "normalcy."

Merriam Webster says,

"Warren G. Harding adopted this word in the presidential election of 1920, stating that he was for “normal times and a return to normalcy.” “A return to normalcy” soon became the slogan most identified with his campaign, to the considerable chagrin of many who felt that normalcy was either a corruption of normality, or simply a non-existent word. A columnist in the New Orleans States spoke for many when he wrote “The friends of Senator Harding are defending his language now by saying that “normalcy” is a perfectly good word. Well, so is jackasstical, when applied to fantastic verbiage.”

Normalcy did exist already, although it was not, at that time, a particularly common word. It had a specific function in mathematics, and our earliest known record of the word comes from a mathematical dictionary published in 1855:

If we denote the co-ordinates of the point of contact, and normalcy, by x” and y”, the equation of the tangent is, y-y” = dy”/dx” (x-x”).
—William Guy Peck, Mathematical Dictionary and Cyclopedia of Mathematical Science: Comprising Definitions of All the Terms Employed in Mathematics-An Analysis of Each Branch, and of the Whole, as Forming a Single Science, 1855

Some of the people who savaged Harding for his use of normalcy did allow that the word existed, but felt that since it was a term peculiar to the iniquitous realm of math it should not properly be employed to indicate normal things. However, Harding was also not the first person to have manhandled normalcy out of its jargonistic cocoon; plenty of other, less-famous, people had been using it in such a manner since the 19th century.

A little wine at once warms them into candor and normalcy, and then grand airs fly off like a covey of partridges, not to return, at least the same evening.
The Chicago Times, 14 Feb. 1875

The party appetite may have become etherealized, changed to babe-like normalcy.
Vermont Watchman & State Journal, 8 Mar. 1893

They want money of over-full value. It is the return to normalcy in monetary value that they wish to prevent.
The Times-Democrat (New Orleans, LA), 7 Sept. 1896

Many newspapers, in reporting on Harding’s use of normalcy, stated that it was in several contemporary dictionaries. Harding himself made this point, when he was asked on the campaign trail to define the word: “I have looked for ‘normality’ in my dictionary, and I did not find it there. ‘Normalcy,’ however, I did find, and it is a good word.” However, given that this was taking place at a time when information spread less rapidly than it does today, it is understandable that many people thought that it must have been invented recently."

I hope that helps. If you think "normalcy" is a Horrid Word, like my correspondent, you can still use "normality." 

Personally, I find "herstory" to be a Horrid Word, even though it was coined by my generation of feminists to reclaim history from the chaps.

Polonius thought "beautified" to be a "vile phrase" in Hamlet's letter to his daughter Ophelia; these things are very subjective.

Some neologisms I admire and use: "mansplaining," though just as linguistically hybrid as "herstory," does the job without need for further explanation. Apparently, there is also "hepeating," to mean making a point by a man that a woman has already made and had ignored. I can imagine using that.

Here are some more for you and you can judge if they are Nice or Horrid:

Al desko - eating at your work desk (cf Al fresco)

Chugger - a charity "mugger."

Covidiot - one who does, thinks or says stupid things during the current pandemic

Fatberg - a disgusting drain or sewer blockage of fat and other detritus

Frenemy - a mixture of friend and enemy

Glamping - glamorous camping


Photobomb - getting yourself into someone else's photo without their knowing.

Twerking - dancing provocatively, using a lot of bottom


Tell me which are the ones you like and which you hate, even if not listed here. Personally, I use the word "cromulent" which comes from American TV show The Simpsons and means something like viable, acceptable. It has even made it into the OED.