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Doctors are not ‘inflammable’

Nearly 50 years ago, my ex (Marie) was a staff therapist for a health agency in the community where we had recently taken up residence. We were young, enthusiastic about our new positions, and dedicated to our professions. Although I loved teaching and the whole college atmosphere, I really looked forward to closing my office door and getting home at night to listen while Marie related the day’s malapropism.

The word “malapropism” comes from a play, written by Richard Sheridan, which was first performed in 1775 at Covent Garden Theatre in London and featured Mrs. Malaprop, aunt of Lydia, a central character. “The Rivals” was Sheridan’s first play, and it was the vehicle that he used to poke fun at the practice of conspicuous consumption, a concept that would be popularized more than a hundred years later in the work of American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen.

Briefly, according to Veblen, conspicuous consumption was the practice of the “nouveaux riches” (new rich) to show off their accumulation of “excess wealth.” The “parvenus” (newcomers to upper-class status) utilized excessive spending to demonstrate their positions of prestige and social power. However, they were the butt of jokes by the “old upper class” because they were perceived as the “Beverley Hillbillies” of their time. And this was clearly demonstrated in their misuse of proper grammar and vocabulary.

This defect in social nicety was anticipated by Sheridan. In “The Rivals,” Mrs. Malaprop bemoans the fact that Lydia has little knowledge about the relative locations among Europe’s major countries. She exclaims, “I would have her instructed in geometry (geography), that she might know something of the contagious (contiguous) countries” — Act II, Sc. II.

Later, she attempts to compliment another character in the play by saying, “He is the very pineapple (pinnacle) of politeness.” While a young lady is criticized for being “as headstrong as an allegory (alligator) on the banks of the Nile” — Act III, Sc. III.

In that same scene, Sheridan truly outdoes himself by inserting four malapropisms into the aunt’s single-sentence self-perception, “If I reprehend (apprehend) anything in this world, it is the use of my oracular (vernacular) tongue, and a nice derangement (arrangement) of epitaphs (epithets)!”

The Americans I don’t mean to signal (single) out Brits as the sole source of such comical expressions. As far as I know, they occur in all languages, but I’m only fluid (fluent) in one. However, I can relate an incident that occurred in Guatemala when a former student of mine who served in the Peace Corps accidentally spilled some food and told her hosts, “Yo soy embarazado.” She meant to convey the fact that she was embarrassed, but the Spanish translation is actually, “I am pregnant”

American writer and producer Norman Lear became an icon of American television when he introduced us to Archie Bunker in the 1970’s sitcom, “All in the Family.” Archie delighted in expressing his basic values, like “patience is a virgin (virtue).” Or castigating his son-in-law, Meathead, with, “I ain’t a man of carnival instinctuals (carnal instincts) like you.” Following up on this theme, he exclaims, “The hookeries and massageries (we know what he means, but I’m not sure that we have a single word for either malapropism) … the whole world is turning into a regular Sodom and Glocca Morra (Gomorrah). And, he was critical of the women’s movement, explaining to his wife that a “woman doctor is only good for women’s problems — like your groinocology (gynecology).” With that, Archie would likely wave to the camera and say, “In closing, I’d like to say Molotov (Mazel Tov)!”

In the world of sports, long-time New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra was known for his mixed metaphors. For example, when speaking of the success of the 1973 New York Mets, a team he managed after retiring as an active player, he said, “We were overwhelming underdogs.” But, he also was responsible for some good malapropisms. When his team wasn’t doing very well and he was criticized for his management style, he told reporters, “I take it with a grin (grain) of salt." Maybe the team was doing poorly at that time because, “It ain’t the heat; it’s the humility (humidity).”

And of course, I shouldn’t oversee (overlook) our politicians. Thomas Menino, former mayor of Boston described another politician as a “man of great statue (statute).” Gib Lewis, one-time Texas Speaker of the House, explained to reporters that, “This is unparalyzed (unparalleled) in the state’s history.” Finally, I mustn’t commit (omit) former president George W. Bush, who commented, “The law I sign today directs new funds … to the task of collecting vital intelligence… on weapons of mass production (destruction).”

Current events I suppose that I started thinking about malapropisms and mixed metaphors because of the poor conjugation (communication) between the office of my personal care physician in Madera and staff at the office of my surgeon in Fresno. I was scheduled for surgery on Thursday, but on Tuesday, it seemed that the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing. I thought, “How can there be so many mixed messages and miscues among medical professionals?” The answer brought me back to thinking about my ex and her first supervisor, whom I’ll call Bessy.

When Marie received an incorrect diagnosis from one of the leading surgeons in that city, she began to question her own opinion. Bessy assured her that she was correct and that “doctors are not inflammable (infallible).” Upon arriving at work quite late one day, Bessy blamed her tardiness on “all the erotic traffic downtown.” Naturally, I wanted to hop into the car and head downtown, at once. My ex, being of greater sensibility, cooled my anticipation by saying, “Jim, she meant ‘erratic.’”

Because I had to file this column before going for surgery, I don’t know how things will turn out. Perhaps I can report the results in a week or so. If not, you can read about it in a document that Archie Bunker called “my last will and testicle (testament).”

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