We got such an outpouring of "I know, right?" on last month's piece "She Literally Misused the Word" (see issue 13) that we've decided to keep a promise we made way back in Editorializing 6: The Undiscovered Country. In an article called "Suffering From Homophonia? Part 3," we wrote: "Next time: Malapropisms – you know, when people say 'distract' when they mean 'detract,' or 'antidote' when they mean 'anecdote.'"
Many of you likely delighted in the mangled utterances of beloved "Sopranos" capo/film producer Carmine "Little Carmine" Lupertazzi, Jr., portrayed by the wonderful Ray Abruzzo. "You're very observant: the sacred and the propane" and "There's no stigmata connected with going to a shrink" are two of our favorites. (For more "Sopranos"-speak, click here.) And I'd even hazard that a goodly percentage of you understand how Little Carmine is, in many ways, a descendent of the ever mis-speaking Mrs. Malaprop, easily the most memorable character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play "The Rivals."
For those unfamiliar with that 18th-century work, the name "Mrs. Malaprop" is a play on the French phrase "mal ‡ propos," which translates as "wrong on purpose." At least that's what is says on Wikipedia.
If you have any doubt, play it safe by going for the smaller (or at least more familiar) word. You may save yourself a worldOur good friends at Merriam-Webster.com credit the playwright Sheridan himself as the source of the word "malapropism," attesting, "Etymology: Mrs. Malaprop, character noted for her misuse of words in R. B. Sheridan's comedy 'The Rivals' (1775)." M-W defines "malapropism" thus: "The usually unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase; especially: the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context."
About that "wrong on purpose" thing, I don't get it (in fact, the aforementioned Wikipedia entry, though an entertaining read, is marked by the disclaimer "This article may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia's quality standards"); unless you're some kind of comedian and malapropisms are your act, you don't want to be wrong on purpose. As such, you'd be wise not to fall prey to these common confusions (again, special thanks to Merriam-Webster Online):
Anecdote: a usually short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident
Antidote: a remedy to counteract the effects of poison; something that relieves, prevents, or counteracts
Bear in mind that the "anti-" in "antidote" refers to fighting off poison or other dangers. Whereas, if you like, a person who tells a lot of aNECdotes can be a pain in the NECK.
Prospective: relating to or effective in the future; likely to come about; expected [the prospective benefits of this law]
Perspective: the interrelation in which a subject or its parts are mentally viewed [places the issues in proper perspective]
It helps to remember the relationship between "prospective" and "prospect" – both refer to future possibility.
Prostrate: stretched out with face on the ground in adoration or submission; lying flat; completely overcome and lacking vitality, will, or power to rise; trailing on the ground
Prostate: a firm, partly muscular, partly glandular body that is situated about the base of the mammalian male urethra and secretes an alkaline viscid fluid which is a major constituent of the ejaculatory fluid
Avoid this comical conflation by recalling that "prostrate" contains an "r," which is the first letter in "religion," a thing that might require you to prostrate yourself. On the other hand, trouble with the aforementioned gland can put one in a terrible STATE.
That said, I, personally, so fear mixing up those last two that I avoid the word "prostrate" at all costs. What I lose in not allowing myself to reach for "prostrate" is so much less than if I declared myself "prostate from the heat."
And though we do encourage you to use big words, if you have any doubt at all about your vocabulary, play it safe by going for the smaller (or at least more familiar) word. Later, look up the word you almost used to make sure you were going to use it correctly. If you were going to use it correctly, next time you'll deploy it without hesitation; if you weren't going to use it correctly, you've saved yourself a world of hurt. You may even want to consult a professional word wrangler – sadly, malapropisms are not limited to spoken expression, as the New York Times gaffe in this month's installment of Not Our Clients illustrates.
"But what about 'distract' and 'detract?'" you may be wondering. Well, a funny thing happened on my way to differentiating them; turns out they're actually related. Check it out:
Distract: to turn aside: divert; to draw or direct (as one's attention) to a different object or in different directions at the same time [was distracted by a sudden noise]
Detract: divert [detract attention]; to diminish the importance, value, or effectiveness of something; often used with from [small errors that do not seriously detract from the book]
So, according to M-W, both "distract" and "detract" are synonymous with "divert" and in both definitions, the word is further defined by its association with "attention." Who knew?