by Mary Jackson (July 2006)


How I rebel in a good malapropism. They seem to have fallen out of flavour lately. Was there a time when they were at their acne? Now it’s mixed metaphors that are all the range, but that’s no skin off my teeth.


So what is a malapropism? Well, it isn’t rocket salad, and you don’t need to be a hot potato to work it out.


Jeanette Winterson makes no bananas about this. In The Times, the celebrated Lebanese author of Oranges are Not the Only Fruit and Sexing the Cherry, treated us to the very pineapple of malaproppery: 

THE OTHER DAY MY ELDERLY country neighbour asked for a bit of help to get his new washing machine into the kitchen… “My old washing machine, he’s given up the goat,” he said, in a broad Gloucestershire accent.

“The goat?” I replied. “Are you sure?” “Oh, yes,” said my neighbour, “ain’t you never heard that expression before, given up the goat?” “Well, not exactly . . . where does it come from?” “Ah well,” said my neighbour, “in the old days, when folks didn’t have much, and mainly worked the land, a man would set store by his animals, especially his goat, and when he come to die, he would bequeath that goat to his heirs, and that is why we say, ‘he’s given up the goat’.”

I am thrilled with this and from now on there will be no more ghosts, only goats. I began to think of other examples of fake etymology, all with their entirely persuasive explanations, a tribute to the exuberance and flexibility of language…

I laboured long into adult life really believing that there was such a thing as a “damp squid”, which of course there is, and when things go wrong they do feel very like a damp squid to me, sort of squidgy and suckery and slippery and misshapen. Is a faulty firework really a better description of disappointment?

Then there are the mad malapropisms beloved of beauty therapists and hairdressers, where “specific” rolls into “pacific”. “I only do this mask for pacific clients,” I am told, lying under the mud, and I am not sure whether that means she thinks I come from further round the globe than Stow on the Wold, or that I am meek by nature.

Winterson asked readers to write in with examples of their own, and the next week she was innovated with replies:

Communicating with the dead is obviously a risky business, especially as they might be buried in constipated ground or, as the Countess of Harewood kindly suggested, have too hastily signed over their Power of Eternity.

One husband told me that his wife likes to say: “’If my mother were alive now, she’d turn in her grave.” I know that’s not quite a fake etymology, but I include it, along with “my words fell on stony ears”. This must be close to bear-faced cheek, which might be a relative of the moveable beast, as in “Easter is a moveable beast — it all depends on when the hens start laying”.

I feel very sorry for the child who nearly choked on his biblical cord, and for the gentleman who feels “out on a limbo”. I think we have all felt out on a limbo sometimes, perhaps especially the lady who “has a milestone round her neck”…

Ms Winterson has shown herself to be a veritable suppository of malapropisms. Gold start for her.

Reading through Ms Winterson’s delightful collection – and the original Times articles are worth savouring in full – I was struck by the number of malapropisms, mixed metaphors and other linguistic mishaps that relate to religion. Why should this be?

England is no longer much of a church-going nation, but most of us will have attended at one time or another, for Christenings, weddings and funerals and the occasional Carol Service. Those of us who went to a traditional school, before such schools were destroyed in the name of equality or multiculturalism, will remember – or half-remember- bits of parables, psalms, hymns or prayers. Even those who are not particularly religious know that these are solemn and sacred words, so that if we get them wrong it is both embarrassing and funny. An old friend of mine once conflated three parables, referring to “The Return of the Lost Samaritan”. The Biblical context gave added piquancy to this confusion.

The Monty Python team understood the comic power of the half-remembered Biblical verse. Just as Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 And All That is all the history you can remember, so Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Holy Grail play with the parts of the Bible that your average “cultural” or nominal Christian remembers:


And the Lord spake, saying, ‘First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then, shalt thou count to three. No more. No less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, nor either count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then, lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in My sight, shall snuff it.’


BRIAN: Why aren’t women allowed go to stonings, Mum?

MANDY: It’s written. That’s why.



This is gloriously irreverent, like their parody of All Things Bright and Beautiful, which I celebrate here:


All things dull and ugly

All creatures short and squat

All things rude and nasty

The Lord God made the lot


How much longer, however, as church attendance dwindles, and as the Bible and hymns are no longer taught in schools, can such irreverence continue? Irreverence presupposes reverence, if not on one’s own part, on the part of the older generation, or the Establishment. What will the younger generation have to mock, to kick against?


This, of course, is a whole Pandora’s box of worms. According to the Book of Malaprop, it is best to let them lie sleeping under a bushel, rather than wake them by blowing your last trumpet. 

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Mary Jackson contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.


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