Have you ever butchered a word? I mean just bloodied the poor thing?
I took French for 7 years and I still can’t pronounce sommelier, the wine expert at restaurants. I’ve asked. I’ve sounded it out. I can’t do it. I give up. There’s been plenty of non-foreign words I’ve mangled but I can’t remember. I’ve blocked them out.
My step mom told me she once heard a man order a “seizure” salad (Caesar salad). These word missteps are called malaprops she explained, “an amusing
error that occurs when a person mistakenly uses a word that sounds like another word but that has a very different meaning.” (Merriam Webster). I think they’re more than amusing, they’re hysterical.
When you read this story you might think I’m a snob, crass or not a nice person.
Crass, yes sometimes.
But I’m not a fancy mean lady and I think most people will relate to this story either because they’ve butchered a phrase or two, or they heard someone make mince meat out of a perfectly fine sentence.
My husband Andy told me this story and when I want to renew the chuckle I ask him to tell it again and again. The 10th time feels as hilarious as the first but laughing makes me sort of feel like the Mean Girl.
For about two months Andy dated a woman he refers to as Nurse Smith (she was actually a nurse but lets just say her last name was Smith). That he doesn’t use her first name always sounds a little porno star but I think he really forgot her name. And the fact is the entirety of their dating existed inside his apartment at 11pm after she got off her night shift while she was still in uniform, so their relationship had some slight porno undertones.
Nurse Smith was, how do I say it? Seriously horny. Andy could count on late night, early morning non-stop round the clock sex till sometimes he had to tell her help, stop, no, I’ve gotta get up for work.
I know, you’re crying him river.
Beyond the rampant romping Andy genuinely liked Nurse Smith although they weren’t spending much time outside the apartment or getting serious.
One night when they did manage to put clothes on they went to a party, one of those outside tent affairs with stations filled with food and drinks. After a few minutes Nurse Smith said, “I’ll meet you at the whores-de-vores tent.”
“You mean hor d’oeuvres,?” Andy said.
“You know what I mean, whore-de-vores, appetizers.”
He broke up with her the next day.
The man dropped his late night sex kitten because she said whores-de-vorse, because she butchered the French word for finger foods.
Not nice. But I admit, I get it.
There’s a few things hard to overlook as much as you want to, you really want to. Bad breathe and yellowed teeth. Butchering words is another one or at least it is for Andy who is hardly Mr. Wordsmith Elitist. He’s a smart guy but not that blow-hard pompous know it all type. He’s a laid back unmacho sort of guys-guy who wears jeans and t-shirts for the most part. Sure, he likes sophisticated stuff, food, wine, travel but without pretense.
How we use language conveys a sense of sophistication. Sophistication without the she-she snooty is kind of sultry. Sultry is sexy.
I’m not saying someone needs to be Rodeo Drive rich, a tenured professor or Hamptons sophisticated. Nose in the air is a buzz kill for sincere relationships but we can at least try to “Make language our friend,” as Oprah once said to an audience who argued the plusses and minuses of being street talk real.
But, there’s also no need for putting on verbal airs. Personally, I can’t say this one word everyone I know uses when they for example, spot a great pair of shoes. The word is “fabulous.” Every dress, restaurant, painting, sunset is “just fabulous.” It feels Hollywood phony even coming from the 99.99% of non-phonies I know who say it. And if I hear “Fab” I almost throw up in my mouth.
Sometimes I like to pretend with my teen daughter that I’m street talk rap funny. “Yo bee-atch whasssup?” She laughs, then tells me to stop. My window for rapster around my child is narrow. Old people doing hipster makes teens cringe like whores de vores makes me cringe.
It hurts because they’re doing it all wrong.
I’m not much for people throwing out Ph.D words so they can puff up or stomp on someone’s self-esteem. I’m also not about dumbing down because someone thinks I sound pompous. I go with what naturally falls off my tongue at the time depending on who I’m with. I might be rapster hipster with my daughter, use raw foul language while I rant or tell a story to my close friends and family, or use college words in context.
I once used the word “condescending” in a sentence with a woman I worked with and she told me to “stop using my fancy college words.” I had fancier words in my pocket but “condescending” is hardly National Spelling Bee big. See, now I sound condescending, I mean I sound like a bitch.
I wish my husband’s story about Nurse Smith didn’t make me laugh. I’m taking a cheap pot-shot at someone for an innocent and harmless slip.
But I come from a long line of wordsmiths and warped sarcastic humorists. We laugh at wildly inappropriate things that comediens Kathy Griffin and Joan Rivers (RIP) and Sasha Baron Cohen and Will Ferrell find so hilarious. Half the people agree, half the people think they’re disgusting.
I tell my teen daughter who mimics our irreverent humor, she can laugh all she wants at the inappropriate and the verbal missteps. She can use street words, bloody the language (teen text, RIP language) but you should only loosen your word standards with your parents and your friends, in private, out of ear shot, away from school essays or anyone whose heart your mocking might pierce.
If she wants to use whores de vores or say that lady has “big ole breastissis” (breasts) at home have at it, but when she gets outside our walls or her friend’s texts, the sentence is “big old breasts” and the word is hor d’oeuvres, thank you very much.
I am an ardent collector of malaprops and have so many which continue to amuse me after many years of retelling. Some were uttered by people dear to me who were so earnestly unaware of their mistakes that I may have been mean to repeat them, but somehow they endeared the person to me even more.
Some of my treasured malaprops were delivered by a wonderful man with whom I carpooled to work many years ago. He was the gardener/groundskeeper at at hospital and school for the mentally retarded where we both worked.
One morning, when he picked me up, he said: Sally, spring is here for sure. This morning when I walked outside those little carcasses were peeping their heads out of the ground. He would also clip off some beautiful “mongolias” for me when the magnolias were in bloom. His dear uncle was dying of “cancer of the pantry”.
So God bless those folks like Nurse Smith and my dear buddy Tyler for giving us such rich and enduring material.
Most likely someone somewhere is enjoying some of my verbal gaffes. That would balance things out nicely.
In a perverse way, I am glad the nurse’s gaffe put my dear son in law off so much. Sounds like she had other considerable talents which might have meant you would never have met him.
Love this, Laura! It truly can be hilarious when people inadvertently dismantle language. This can often happen among the ranks of the nouveau riche. Which brings me to a fun and random Joan Rivers quote: “It’s better to be nouveau riche than to never be riche at all.”
I think it’s the French words that have made their way into English that trip people up the most.
Laura G Owens
Thanks Karen! So true. You can’t help but laugh (to yourself). Joan Rivers endlessly made me laugh, RIP. I think you’re right about the French words. I took the language and that word sommelier still trips me up (and others!). My step mother has a long list of these verbal missteps she’s heard, but she’s so dear and kind she would never correct the person.
Laura G Owens
Thank you Sally for your warm-hearted response and story. It’s a tough decency call, laughing and repeating the innocent verbal gaffes, but I think we’ve all made them so we’re all up for grabs?? Thanks for sharing and for teaching me about malaprops. Carcasses, mongolias and cancer of the pantry? We shouldn’t laugh but how can we NOT? As you said, it’s rich and enduring material. How many times have I asked you (and Andy) to repeat these stories and they’re never an ounce less funny? Either we’re short on material (hardly) or these are too timeless and amusing to let die off.