by George Mason
It seems to be a truism that many families can boast of at least one member who speaks in an innovative and entertaining fashion by committing what are known in the literary world as malaprops. In our family, this kind of quirky communication is fondly referred to as a”Pollyism.”
That’s because my older sister Polly’s way of speaking frequently evokes an intriguingly different image from the one intended. For example, once referring to someone in the throes of a difficult childbirth, Polly offered that the mother-to-be “was probably under seduction.” A wok meal at a friend’s house inspired her later to vow, “I’m going right out and buy one of those yaks for our dinner!” I missed the detective movie she saw in which a somewhat over-achieving maid “put arson in his coffee and killed him.” When Polly’s husband suffered a slipped disc in his back, our sympathies were momentarily diverted as she solemnly informed us that “he may have to go into contractions.”
The First Principle of Pollyisms . . .
The first principle of Pollyisms is that the more dislocated her expression, the clearer may be its meaning, once you think about it. Take, for example, the earliest recorded Pollyism, a hollered request to Mom on her way to the five-and-dime: “Will you please pick me up some vanilla folders?” Now, we all know what she meant, right? She knew exactly what she wanted–Manila folders are vanilla-colored, after all.
. . . and the Second
A second axiom is that Polly herself is always unaware of her misstatements (at least until one of us guffaws). A Pollyism’s special charm is the spontaneity and the lack of guile with which it is uttered. I’m sure she meant no disrespect, for instance, in commenting on a well-tailored society matron’s “pouffant hairdo.” It is not known if the lady with the “bouffant” style heard her, or was offended.
Polly has always been quick to give advice. Mom once mentioned the possibility of taking up certain meditative exercises to calm her nerves; Polly countered with “I don’t know how much good yoghurt would do.” Always a pet lover, but living in a small apartment, Polly showed admirable prudence in wanting a minor bird. Once when someone was discussing the hazards of fire in the home, she innocently inquired, “Don’t you have a fire hydrant in your kitchen?”
You see how much sense she makes!
I have long envied Polly’s success in dealing with the public; part of her secret may lie in keeping others off guard. Through the dressing room partition at a clothing store, she complained to the clerk, “These pants are too short in the crouch.” Arranging travel plans, she asked at an airline ticket counter for information on their “helicopter shuffle service.”
Watch this space for more Pollyisms. We’ll post Part II soon.
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.