GrammarPhile Blog

Twisted? Misused? How About Just Plain Wrong?

Posted by Julie DeSilva   Oct 25, 2011 5:30:00 AM

pretzelDo you know the origin of the word malapropism? It is taken from the character of Mrs. Malaprop in the 1775 R.B. Sheridan comedy The Rivals.

A malaprop is simply an example of a malapropism, and a malapropism is a usually unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase; more especially the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context. For example, "he always said 'polo bears' and 'Remember Pearl Island' and 'neon stockings.'"

Some of today's examples could be a malapropism's cousins, along the lines of "I could care less." Some are examples of misuse. Some are just plain wrong.

Eating and having cake. To eat one's cake and have it too, a proverbial statement of the human greed for irreconcilable benefits, turns up in print and talk with the order illogically reversed. Advertisers assure us, about various "dual purpose" appliances, that we can have our cake and eat it too. Political leaders, we read, are trying to have their cake and eat it too. It is of course no trick at all to eat the cake that you have. The point of the saying is to have the cake after you have eaten it!

First of all. Enumerating reasons, causes, and arguments often requires a trumpet call to arrest attention. Usually first, second, and so on are felt to be adequate, but if the enumerator wants greater emphasis for the first item, he or she will, with a note of impatience, begin with first of all. It is just because of this emphasis that there is no need to follow suit with the frequent and foolish second of all.

Shuttle back and forth. Most of the persons who have not seen a shuttle in operation will at least know shuttle buses or shuttle planes. Shuttle planes, like the weaver's shuttle, go back and forth--between Boston and New York, between New York and Washington, and between LA and San Francisco, among other city pairs. This knowledge does not deter many of us from writing four words for one. The sin is venial and its commission may be caused by the lack of a set preposition after shuttle, which is felt as weak or inconclusive. But whether one gives up or retains back and forth in speech, a reminder of its redundancy may help lighten a written sentence here and there.

  • Correct: The plane shuttles between Boston and New York.
  • Incorrect: The plane shuttles back and forth between Boston and New York.

Dilemma. Classically used, this word cannot denote the perplexity of choosing among three or four careers, mates, or anything else, since it literally means two assumptions. The sense of a forced option is, moreover, very strong in this word. Though Merriam-Webster's usage paragraph describes a growing use of terrible, painful, or irreconcilable in conjunction, the word should be powerful enough by itself.

Source: Modern American Usage - A Guide, edited by Jacques Barzun.

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Topics: malapropism

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