My Year of New words, Part 9: TYPOS

One of the types of word formation that doesn’t turn up much in textbooks—but which has been enormously helpful to be—is the typo. Typing quickly I notice odd combinations of letters that sometimes suggest new words. Typing malapropism, for example, I produced mammalproism, which could be the misidentification of species. Portland writer Bill Cameron tweeted about a typing growd for crown several times, which suggested growd: an angry gathering and one growing in size.

Typos are not the only type of word error, or even the most fun: spoonerisms rearrange parts of word shapes—creating dickle and nimed from nickel and dimed or (if only sound features are switched) skubetti from spaghetti. Spoonerisms are transpositions of sounds, a verbal slip named in honor of the Rev. William Spooner. Spooner was a professor and later the head of Oxford University’s New College (a position charmingly called warden rather than president), and he was known to say such things as Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride? (customary to kiss) and The Lord is a shoving leopard (a loving shepherd).
Malapropisms are the semantic equivalent of action slips—when you put the ice cream in the cabinet rather than the freezer. When you malaprop you select (or activate) the wrong word, substituting strawberry for library, or vacuum for hair drier. Malapropisms are in fact named for the character Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals (among other things, she refers to another character as the very pine-apple of politeness).

As a literary technique, malapropisms are used to portray characters whose verbal ambitions exceed their vocabulary. We find them in Much Ado about Nothing (where Constable Dogberry notes that Comparisons are odorous (Act 3, Scene V), in Norman Lear’s All in the Family (where Archie Bunker complains about people making suppository remarks about the government), and in the Sopranos (where Tony’s father complains in a flashback that his wife is an albacore around my neck). You can malaprop just part of a word of course: as in choirpractor or Smithstonian.

And if the malapropped word seems to fit the context, others may refer to it as a Freudian slip. So when someone says Tell me what I can do to make things difficult (instead of different) or Thank you for your hostility (instead of hospitality), those are Freudian Slips.

When the malapropisms makes sense in a folk etymological way, they are often called eggcorns. Thus we find the eggcorns: escape goat for scapegoat, physical year for fiscal year, soaping wet for soaking wet (and of course eggcorns for acorns). There is even a term for the mishearing of musical lyrics and poetic lines, as when we hear Lead on, oh King eternal! as Lead On, O Kinky Turtle. These are called mondegreens.

Writer Sylvia Wright coined the term after observing a child mishear lines from the The Bonny Earl of Murray. Hearing They hae slay the Earl of Murray/and laid him on the green, the child understood it as a double murder: They hae slay the Earl of Murray/And Lady Mondegreen. Young children and beginning writers are frequent sources of mondegreens and especially eggcorns, producing tales of an athlete who vouches never to lose again, wires sauntered together, tight-nit groups and coinsiding events.

Closed-caption fails are the errors made by the speech recognition software used on news programs. Exercising in front of a bank of televisions at the Ashland YMCA, I read that health care reform is holding on by a threat, and in a different story that there is no constellation for angry travelers stuck in Europe. I learn about tough times for folks who make yocks, the latest activities of the airline pirate’s union, and get a political update from the city of Your fault, Virginia. I can laugh at these guiltlessly. Closed-caption errors may not yet match the classic eloquence of Reverend Spooner and Mrs. Malaprop, but they are making progress and making me smile.

What all of the semantic errors have in common is our impetus to assign motivated meaning to forms. It’s also what we do in folk etymology, when the historically accurate etymology becomes opaque (or we simply override it). On a warm summer day, I included xeratask (to sit in the dry, warm, end-of-summer sunshine, doing nothing) partly to celebrate the day and partly to allude to the reinvention of xeriscape (landscaping in ways that reduce the need for water) as xeroscape. Xeri- is opaque and gets re-invented as zero, with the sense of waterless. You can expect xeroscape or even zeroscape to eventually win out. If you are an etymologue (one who confuses etymological faithfulness with precise usage), that will make you sad. But that’s life.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology was released by Oxford University Press in June of 2014.
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