By George Mason
Sometimes I prefer hearing a Pollyism (aka malaprop) without knowing the context. I like to formulate my own mental picture and then compare it to her intended communication. To take a simple example, “He is on a slight inclination” suggests the image of a man standing in the Tower of Pisa, whereas Polly was merely describing someone who favored one idea over another.
What do you envision when hearing “it looks like an optical course“? Perhaps telescope makers receiving instruction in lens-grinding? Or a pathway through a warehouse full of binoculars? Polly was referring to the clutter of toys, books, and boxes that nearly obscured the passage through her living room.
When I heard “it really got my dandruff up,” I figured Polly had finally discovered a shampoo that works. Actually, she was talking about an incident that had made her unusually angry.
Proverbs and idioms make especially interesting fodder for Polly’s mental digestive system. Her conservative slip was certainly showing when she once cautioned, “Don’t rock the apple cart!” Unable to choose between two equally appealing options, she rationalized, “It’s all the same—one half dozen after another half-dozen.” We could see why she got so discouraged at one job where she always had to “bear the blunt of it.”
My sister is a conscientious mother to her three children. However, I can’t help imagining the classroom embarrassment that one of the kids may someday endure by reiterating what he has learned at home. Picture an otherwise intelligent child eagerly raising his hand and announcing that a pivotal event in the American Revolution was the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. He had signaled the approach of the British by showing lanterns from the tower in the prearranged code of “one if by day, two if by night.”
Or picture the response of her son’s model car club pals. He repeats Polly’s lesson that the narrow platform running along the bottom of each side of most pre-1950 automobiles is called a “dashboard.” Isn’t that what you jump onto when you’re in a hurry and dashing (or running) for the car as it pulls away? I have faith that youth will survive such faux pas.
Are Pollyisms/ Malaprops Contagious?
But what about the rest of us? I have tentative evidence that Pollyisms may be contagious. Our oldest sister, for instance, once depicted her husband seated in the bleachers at a soccer match as “cheering from the observatory.” Several family friends have also exhibited symptoms. One recently vowed “for all intensive purposes” to quit eating sugar. Another was reportedly so sleepy that when her head hit the pillow, she was “out like a log” (so she slept like a light?). A third was heard to lament that an inoperative Xerox copier was “on the blank.”
It is probably too early to tell if this mini-epidemic should be cause for alarm. In the editing profession, such a disease could prove fatal. With Polly’s philosophical attitude, however, I will “burn that bridge when I come to it.”
George Mason is an eagle-eyed, nit-picky amateur proofreader who is still waiting for The New Yorker to discover his talents and offer him a copyediting job.
Editor’s note: Chances are, you (or someone you know) colors our language with funny malaprops, too. Please share your examples here. Especially if you’re related to George Mason!