A malapropism is a saying (an “ism”) that uses a word or phrase where it does not belong: where it is inappropriate. “Malapropism” comes from French: “mal” (poorly or badly) “apropos” (relevant). Most often the incorrect word is misused because it sounds like a different word that was intended, hence the confusion.
1. Meat For Geese?
I like the English proverb, “What is meet for the goose is meet for the gander,” but each time I quoted it in a publication, a reviewer or an editor changed it to “What is meat for the goose is meat for the gander.” The third time an editor changed it for me I wrote to him, pointing out that his version was a serious malapropism, for the goose and its male counterpart are granivores (seed eaters) and so do not eat meat!
The cause of the US confusion of “meat” for “meet” became obvious when that editor replied, quoting the US version of that proverb: “What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” This wrong version occurs in US dictionaries and encyclopediae, including Wikipedia! (Americans like to appear original when they modify an English saying. For instance, where the British say, “I was between the devil and the deep blue sea,” Americans alter it to “I was between a rock and a hard place.”)
So, in the US version of the proverb in question, “meat” came to replace “meet” because meat is used in sauce! But sauce, too, is a malapropism in that proverb, for goose and gander do not eat sauce! Bottom line: The correct English word to use in that proverb is “meet” (which means fair, just, or right).
2. Singular or Plural?
Some English words exist only in the plural form: we study physics and mathematics (but not physic or mathematic!); similarly, we engage in athletics and not athletic. The person who directs athletics is an Athletics Director, and not an Athletic Director. “Athletic” is an adjective indicating: fit, trim, and muscular! (We have commented on this kind of error elsewhere in these blog posts, pointing out that a man is six feet tall and not six foot tall, just as a ten-dollar book costs ten dollars.)
3. Out Of This World!
One US expression that we usually don’t recognize as a malapropism is “astronaut.” It is derived from the ancient Greek word, Argonaut (literally Sailor of the Argo Sea, in reference to the fable of “Jason and the Argonauts.”) Thus, “astronaut” implies someone who sails the “sea” between the stars. But the world has seen no such person yet! The farthest anyone has gone is to the moon; no one has ever gone past the gravitational zone of the earth, let alone beyond the neighborhood of our local star, the sun. So, nobody has ever gone between stars! The Russian equivalent, “cosmonaut,” is in the same category since it implies someone who navigates the cosmos—the universe!
The pompous American and Russian words for travelers to near-earth orbits were coined during the Cold War, when each side was trying to pump itself up as a “superpower!” (It is reminiscent of that comical scene in the Charlie Chaplin movie, The Great Dictator, where “Il Duce” and his guest, “Der Fuhrer,” each furiously ratcheted up his stool in order to look down at the other!)
4. Why Not Consult a Dictionary?
What do we make of statements like:
• “Your point is mute”? (A person may be mute, but a point can only be moot.)
• “I didn’t go, do to bad weather”? (due, not do)
• “I can’t phantom what devil made him do that”? (The word needed there is fathom.)
• “I employ you to send me your comments”? (The correct word is implore.)
• “He does not mix words”? (mince, not mix)
• “We may loose this game”? (lose, not loose)
• An introduction of a TV panel as an “Ombudswoman for Medicaid”? (Since ombudsman is not an English word but Swedish, this is like calling a female German a “Gerwoman”!)
Clearly, some of the more common malapropisms can be avoided if we cultivate a habit of consulting a dictionary (or encyclopedia or thesaurus, or the like) whenever in doubt—especially these days when those reference sources are freely available on the internet.