Recently, a friend of mine, attempting to convey the idea that someone was naive, referred in an article to “a babe in the manger.”
She had, I suspect, conflated the image of an innocent infant (from the story of the birth of Jesus) with the phrase “a dog in the manger” (from one of Aesop’s fables). “A dog in the manger” has an entirely different meaning and moral: You shouldn’t senselessly hoard an item, denying it to someone else even though it’s of no value to you.
Such garbled phrases are called “malapropisms” or “malaphors.” Like the one above, the cause is usually the grafting of one recollected proverb or expression onto another. Examples: “He has a mind like a steel sieve.” “Now I’ve given the cat away.” “It’s not rocket surgery.”
Here are a few more of my favorites:
• Listening to a radio program, I heard a report on an embattled jury deliberation that included this colorful phrase: “It’s the pink elephant in the room.”
• A business colleague overheard this description of something that occurred quickly: “It happened in the blink of a click.”
• In a newspaper article, a clinical psychologist was quoted as saying, “The idea that there is some normal level of sexual functioning drives me up the creek.”
These gaffes are often amusing, although the joke is usually at the expense of the hapless writer or speaker. Don’t be the target of this sort of embarrassing humor. Always review your writing to ensure that it’s free of inadvertent malapropisms.[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book recently published by AWAI that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]