A nice derangement of epitaphs

One of the great riches of language is its potential for error. Error in spoken language is common enough, but error in the slippery terrain between spoken language and written language has fabulous potential. Beyond the common mistakes in grammar and usage, one can find, particularly if one looks in on the fellows at Language Log, some gorgeous specialized categories.

The malapropism: This venerable category of errors derives from the delicious and eponymous Mrs. Malaprop from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals of 1775. Mrs. Malaprop (from the French mal a propos) pretentiously and unknowingly substitutes the wrong word for a similar-sounding correct one in her pronouncements, such as an allegory on the banks of the Nile. Or, more comprehensively: If I reprehend any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs! (apprehend, vernacular, arrangement, epithets).

The Spoonerism: The Rev. Archibald Spooner, warden of New College, Oxford, has given his name to a tongue-twisted error in which portions of words are transposed in phrases to give new and incongruous meanings. May I sew you to a sheet? for show you to a seat and the toast To our queer old dean for dear old queen are representative examples. Though the Rev. Mr. Spooner was said to be given to this sort of thing, it appears that many Spoonerisms attributed to him are entirely apocryphal.

The mondegreen: In an 1954 essay Sylvia Wright gave this word its impetus by desribing how as a child she had understood a line in the ballad “The Bonnie Earl O’Murray,” laid him on the green, as Lady Mondegreen. A mondegreen is a misunderstood rendering of the text of a songf or poem. The child’s hearing the hymn “Gladly the Cross I’d Bear” as “Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear” is a famous mondegreen. Rock music, given the roaring instrumentation and slack articulation of the singers, is fertile soil for mondegreens.

The eggcorn: The linguist Geoffrey Pullum has given us this term for an erroneous transformation of a stock expression into a new one that only appears to make sense. Free reign, hone in and baited breath* are typical examples. They appear to rise typically from misunderstandings of spoken English as it is translated into the written version.

The Cupertino: Technology has given us a new class of error identified at Language Log as the Cupertino: an error induced by careless use of electronic spell-checking — a form of cooperation transmuted into Cupertino. The Sun once presented a notable example in an article referring to Kunta Kinte, the protagonist of Alex Haley’s Roots, as Chunter Knit. It should be superfluous to point out that only a fool sets a spell-check program to run automatically.


* If you do not know what these three expressions are supposed to be, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to John E. McIntyre, A.M.E./Copy Desk, The Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 12178 for the answers.



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