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February 10, 2005 [feather]
Malapropisms and other fun things

People write to me from time to time asking me to post about what it's like teaching in a boarding school. For a variety of reasons, I've not obliged--this site is not a diary, the school deserves not to be identifiably discussed on this site, there's no time. That's one thing I will say about the life I presently lead--I own very, very little of my time. I'm at a very small school--which means that teachers all do a lot more than teach. They proctor study halls during the day and at night; they run tutorials and sports programs and extracurricular activities; they do administrative work; they manage dormitories, which in turn means that they ensure that students are up and about early in the morning and that they are at home by curfew and in bed by a reasonable hour; they also counsel, counsel, and counsel. Very often, the work day begins at 7 AM with dormitory duties and ends after 11 PM, also with dormitory duties. In between, it's a whirlwind of serial commitments and obligations. I have one night off a week, and I have two weekends off each month. So it's hard to find time to read. This is why I am only a few pages further into Susanna Moore's In the Cut than I was last Sunday, when I posted her opening paragraphs. Stealing a few minutes to read today, I found another few paragraphs I like enough to post here. The novel is told from the perspective of an English teacher / linguist who finds herself mixed up in a murder investigation. Here's the sort of thing this teacher-linguist thinks about when she is on the subway:

Two women sitting next to me on the subway were talking about a man. One of the women said, but he just want to conversate and I just want to blowse through my magazine. I could kill that man.

A dangerous combination for me. Language and passion.

I have often noticed that words that are incorrectly rendered have an onomatopoetic logic, as well as a kind of poetry, that is more appealing, sometimes even more accurate, than correct usage. The wrong words are sometimes so close to a truer meaning that they are like puns. Many of the words have to do with the body, or disease. For example, Old Timer's Disease, rather than Alzheimer's. Abominal for stomach. Athletic fit for epileptic fit. Chicken pops. Very close veins. The prostrate gland.

And there are other words, too. Daily-by-daily. Chomping at the bit. Autumn furlage. Unchartered waters. And what could be more alluring than breastesses?

I love these. My mother, a retired physician, once knew patients who suffered from the Screaming Mighty Jesus (cerebral meningitis). Readers are welcome to add more in the comments.

posted on February 10, 2005 6:19 PM


Huh? I thought you taught at Penn. Anyway, your prep agenda reminds me of a good friend who taught philosophy at Andover...and coached, and monitored the dorm he and his family lived in, and...

Posted by: A. G. at February 10, 2005 7:23 PM

When I was a kid, my mother humorously referred to any virus making the rounds as "the epazoodic." I was grown before I realized that "epizootic" is a real word, meaning an outbreak of disease among animals, like "epidemic" among people. I guess you would pronounce it "epi-zo-otic" though.

My mother sometimes substitutes words just for the heck of it. I remember that once she and I were remembering some horrifying event that had happened in the past and she said, "I look upon past perpetrations with tremor and fiddling." Well, I got the "fear and trembling" part but I still don't know what "perpetrations" stood in for. She has a very broad vocabulary, really. My husband once said that she and I were the only people he'd ever heard use the word "chagrinned" in a sentence.

My mom had a stroke a couple of years ago and it affected her language, both expression and comprehension. She made a good recovery, thank God, but it was pretty strange for a week or so. It was really fascinating to watch her language come back. The scary thing is that the way she expressed herself about halfway through that week is the way I sound when I am very tired. My husband and daughter are used to it. They don't even laugh at me anymore.

Posted by: Laura at February 10, 2005 7:29 PM

One of my sisters is an emergency room nurse, and she had a patient who was worried about having the *Smiling* Mighty Jesus (spinal meningitis)

Posted by: David Foster at February 10, 2005 9:01 PM

Bless you for being there. Boardinng school is the best and toughest thing I have ever done! We neede more voices like yours 15 years ago.

Posted by: Bettina Ricks at February 10, 2005 11:19 PM

"Perpetations" may be inspired by "perturbations."

Posted by: Joanne Jacobs at February 11, 2005 3:38 AM

Remember when you made your big announcement of leaving Penn for boarding school teaching last year? I commented that the move might be great, but that you will be bewildered by the idea of being on the go from 7am to midnight. Class, practice, meals, study halls, dorm duty, etc. Its unbelievable until you actually experience it. I remember one morning wondering where I got the energy from (I figured it was from the kids) just to keep going. The good news: if you decide to stick with it, it gets easier. The bad news: the kids never really change. But you do. Good luck!

Posted by: M2 at February 11, 2005 9:55 AM

how about "taken for granite" instead of "taken for granted." spelling errors can be funny: "defiantly" instead of "definitely" has been humorous. "I defiantly believe we should all support this solution."

Posted by: jason at February 11, 2005 10:05 AM

One of my favorites is "run the whole gambit" for "run the gamut."

Posted by: Geoff at February 11, 2005 12:01 PM

"'Perpetations' may be inspired by 'perturbations.'"

Perhaps it is "palpitations"? As in, of the heart?

Posted by: Joshua Sasmor at February 11, 2005 1:19 PM

I just corrected a paper where "tough row to hoe" (gardening metaphor) became "tough road to hoe"

and then there was "defense station" used for "defenestration" in a conversation the other day.

Posted by: John Phelan, Conservative English Major at February 11, 2005 3:48 PM

One of my students my first semester teaching Expository Writing I, wrote "waa-laa" trying to (phonetically) spell "voila." I giggled for days.

Posted by: holly at February 11, 2005 5:29 PM

I like "taken for granite" because it's like "carved in stone".

I thought maybe "proceedings" which has the right meaning but the wrong cadence.

Posted by: Laura at February 11, 2005 7:35 PM

I have an uncle with a life long hearing problem. Almost everything he says contains at least one such variation.

Posted by: krm at February 12, 2005 12:36 PM

I'm just re-reading Villette by Charlotte Bronte, under the impression that it's the way a boarding school teacher's schedule used to be 150 years ago, not now.

We might have but a few boarding schools in Israel, yet I'm sure the working conditions are not so hard on teachers. Wake up America...

With best wishes,

Posted by: Corinna Hasofferett at February 12, 2005 6:52 PM

One of my very right brained friends, who is given to such confusions, was going on and on about a problem she had at work, and said, very earnestly, "See, what's going on is there's too many cooks and not enough Indians."

Posted by: Allan at February 12, 2005 7:18 PM

"For all intensive purposes" was used by by a friend of mine in the same conversation he used "the die was cast" meaning the decision was made permanently, as in dyed a permanent color.

Posted by: Shaun at February 13, 2005 10:31 AM

I had "lame man's terms" this week used in a sentence. Probably makes just as much sense to the student as layman...

Posted by: timna at February 13, 2005 3:52 PM

"for all intensive purposes"

Posted by: one at February 13, 2005 5:56 PM

My Father, who was raised on a black-dirt farm in North East Texas, called condimiums condiminums. I never asked while he was alive, and my Mother and I laughed about this and other funny things he'd say and neither of us knew whether he was kidding or just didn't know.

Posted by: Dave Wilkins at February 13, 2005 7:43 PM

While waiting for a haircut at a local barbershop, a group of us were watching a national cable news channel. After a story on fertility clinics was aired, one of the older waiting gentleman asked,"How long they had been using artificial inspermination to make babies"?
A very accurate description of the process.

Posted by: Brian Downing at February 13, 2005 10:16 PM

And then there was the man with unrequited lust who developed swollen nymph loads.

Posted by: John Bonnell at February 15, 2005 9:41 PM

Medical malapropisms were topical briefly last year in the UK (see the URL), when various newspapers reported examples allegedly found in doctors' letters that had been outsourced to India for typing: "baloney amputation", "flea bite his left leg", "Euston tube station malfunction", and so on. The trouble was, many of them had been going around for years as jokes on the medical circuit. It seemed well possible that this was a story cooked up to justify the real issue: the effect of outsourcing on UK jobs.

Posted by: Ray Girvan at February 17, 2005 9:12 AM

"OK now, I want to be real pacific about this..." (my erstwhile scoutmaster). OR:

"I want to take a different tact [tacked?]". OR:

"Our specialty equipment is equipped with a highly inflammable profile..." (I guess it's supposed to burst into flame?)

Posted by: RD at February 21, 2005 1:33 AM