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Don't take verbal blunders for 'granite'

Dave McElhinny
| Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

When my younger son came home from school and told me that he knows all the colors of the “rectum,” I laughed so hard that Marburger's chocolate milk came out of my nose.

Obviously, he meant to say spectrum, but from this day forth, whenever I see a rainbow, you know what I'll be thinking.

With that example in mind, it's time for your local word nerd to share one of my favorite parts of the English language. Every single person has experienced it, but many don't realize that it has an actual name. I'd like to introduce you to the malapropism.

Malapropism is the act of using an incorrect word in place of one that is similar in pronunciation. The word comes from a character named Mrs. Malaprop in the play “The Rivals” by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who suffered from this verbal affliction.

Mainstream America became enamored with this phenomenon when Archie Bunker took to the airwaves in the 1970s in the hit show “All in the Family.” Archie would regularly butcher the English language with such gems as “capital punishment is a detergent to crime,” and “nobody knew his name, he wanted to remain unanimous.”

My college roommate was the World Champion user of malapropism. The day he blurted out in a crowded room that “DiVinci painted the Sixteenth Chapel,” the collective roar of laughter was indeed glorious. Not only was it a malapropism, but he coupled it with the wrong artist — Michelangelo is responsible for the Sistine Chapel painting.

He used to get “subscriptions for new glasses,” used “fire distinguishers” to douse flames, thought “Dick Butka” was a great coach, and was known to “drink himself into Bolivia.”

However, soon it became apparent that while he was indeed our undisputed king, all of us were and still are susceptible to this.

From then on, everybody in my college suite became hyper-sensitive to the malapropism, just waiting for a chance to pounce on the next person who made a verbal blunder. After all, “what's good for the goose is good for the gambler.”

Now, decades later, the thrill of a good malapropism still burns brightly in my circle of friends as we regularly report to each other any time one of these mistakes rears its ugly head. Whether you are “a wolf is cheap clothing” or simply a person who enjoys “self-defecating humor,” everybody I know sooner or later is guilty of this.

Just last week, I was talking about a local band I like that was going to be “mainlining at Jergel's.” My friend immediately busted me on the misusage, as headlining was the word I meant to use. I instantly pulled out my phone and self-reported it in an ongoing group text to a handful of friends who appreciate that sort of thing.

My uncle was talking about polygamy over lunch one day, which is having multiple wives. He explained articulately how he prefers just having one wife, which he then referred to as being in a “monotonous” relationship. If you think I have ever let him or my aunt forget about mixing up monogamy and monotony, well, you don't know me very well.

To people who love wordplay, few things are as thrilling as a perfectly delivered malapropism. If you hear one, enjoy it; if you make one, embrace it, because being able to laugh at yourself is vital in this world. For any readers out there who have some great examples, please feel free to share them with me. I can never get enough.

I'd like to leave you with this. Life is short and unpredictable, so “don't take friends and family for granite,” don't be defined by “your circumcisions” in life, and don't worry too much about the future because you can “burn that bridge when you come to it.”

Dave McElhinny is the North Bureau Chief for the Tribune-Review. Reach him at dmcelhinny@tribweb.com or via Twitter @DaveMcTrib.

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