The Language Perfectionist: Mixed-Up Expressions

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.]

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Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.