‘The very pineapple of politeness’ and other ways to mess around with words

Published 4:40 pm Friday, October 22, 2021

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There’s no doubt that English is a very strange language.

That’s due, mostly, to the language’s history of development over hundreds of years. We’ve borrowed plenty of vocabulary and grammar from other languages along the way, which can easily complicate everything as new information is absorbed. But I think English’s strangeness is also partially because some people are very good at wordplay, and sometimes mistakes never get corrected.

This week, let’s take a break from serious topics and delve into some fun ways we play around with or incorrectly use the English language, intentionally or not. I’ve pulled information here mainly from Grammarly and the Merriam-Webster dictionary websites, as well as a few other sources.

Let’s start off with misnomers. You know how buffalo wings don’t actually come from buffaloes, right? Last I checked, buffaloes roaming out in the Midwest didn’t have wings attached. That’s a misnomer! It’s a name that is “wrong or inappropriate in some way for the thing it refers to.” Basically, chicken wings are not actually “buffalo” wings even if we call them that.

(For the record, according to Merriam-Webster, the “buffalo” part of the name comes from the city in New York where the dish originated.)

The “funny bone” is another example since that spot on your arm is actually a bundle of nerves and not a bone itself.

The “Hundred Year War” fought between England and France actually continued for an extra 16 years past that mark. (Perhaps historians just wanted to round the numbers?)

Then there’s “tin foil” which has become a misnomer over time because it’s made from aluminum these days.

“Starfish” and “jellyfish” aren’t really fish at all, and “red pandas” are extremely cute, but they’re not related to their more familiar namesake either.

Malapropisms are kind of similar to misnomers since they both deal with incorrect usage of words. But the difference is that a malapropism is when a similar sounding word is substituted for the correct one.

The term was coined from a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play “The Rivals.” Mrs. Malaprop would often use the wrong word to elicit laughs from the audience. Perhaps the best-known example was when she calls a gentleman “the very pineapple of politeness.” She, of course, meant “pinnacle.” In another example, Mrs. Malaprop says “allegory” when she means “alligator.”

In literature, malapropisms can function as humorous literary devices. But there are plenty of real life examples where an accidental slip of the tongue causes some unintentional laughs.

Baseball player Yogi Berra once said “Texas has a lot of electrical votes” instead of “electoral.”

Former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley called a tandem bicycle a “tantrum bicycle.”

And my personal favorite is after Mike Tyson lost one of his boxing fights, he told interviewers “I might fade into Bolivian.” Of course, he meant “oblivion.”

In the same category as malapropisms, an eggcorn is when you accidentally substitute a word or phrase with one that sounds nearly identical. (The main difference between the two is that a malapropism is often rather absurd and used for comedic effect. An eggcorn is usually just a mistake that someone might not even notice they’ve made. Those are usually a bit more logical.)

An example would be saying “cold slaw” instead of the correct term “coleslaw.” If you didn’t know the right word for that food, “cold” would make a lot of sense since the food is actually served cold.

A particularly common eggcorn is “for all intensive purposes.” It sounds almost exactly the same as the correct phrase which is “for all intents and purposes.” If you were speaking fast, there’s almost no difference in pronunciation! But using “intensive” here doesn’t convey the same meaning.

By the way, the term “eggcorn” was coined to describe this phenomenon because that’s the word some people apparently use when they actually mean “acorn.”

While malapropisms and eggcorns deal with incorrect word meanings, spoonerisms come from incorrect pronunciations. The term comes from a British clergyman back in the 1800’s named William Archibald Spooner, who reportedly often transposed the beginnings of words while speaking. Though many “spoonerisms” were falsely attributed to him, the name has stuck around to this day.

It’s quite easy to come up with a spoonerism yourself. Some examples include changing “lighting a fire” to “fighting a liar”; saying “keys and parrots” when you mean “peas and carrots”; and calling a “pack of lies” a “lack of pies” instead.

Oh, what a difference a couple of mixed-up letters can make!

Lastly, there are mondegreens, which are words or phrases that develop from mishearing the correct version. They most often come from song lyrics. In fact, the term “mondegreen” itself comes from a misheard lyric of a 17th century Scottish ballad, where “laid him on the green” sounds a bit like “Lady Mondegreen.”

There are plenty of examples of mondegreens out there. I still remember hearing people in school argue over whether Jimi Hendrix was singing “excuse me while I kiss this guy” or “excuse me while I kiss the sky.” (Perhaps an argument which has spanned generations. We obviously did not have Google as readily available in those days as we do now.)

As a personal example, I remember several years ago, my friend showed me a hilarious youtube video where someone had written mondegreen English lyrics to a Japanese rock song. The whole thing ended up sounding like nonsense, and even the title of the song became something as silly as “beansprout.” To this day, whenever I listen to that song, I can still only hear the fake lyrics!

Mondegreens really stick with you, even when you know they’re incorrect.

These are all only a few examples of the ways we twist and turn our language. Sometimes we’re just trying to be funny, and other times it’s a simple genuine mistake. People have been saying these kinds of things for hundreds of years, and I’m sure it won’t be stopping any time soon.

How many of these do you hear in your everyday life?

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7206.