Does this sound familiar? We had a look at self-referential sentences last week (“This sentence has five words”) but instead of moving on to self-referential words, we give you a break and focus on wits and wags who have mangled language for humorous effect.
Two names that come to mind are Groucho Marx and Ogden Nash, whose works don’t need deep analysis for the same reason that a joke is lost when you need to explain it.
Groucho liked to play around with clichés and trite sayings (on the need to eat well, he once said “One swallow doesn’t make a supper”) or distort a phrase or word (about hunting elephants: “As I say, we tried to remove the tusks. But they were embedded so firmly we couldn’t budge them. Of course, in Alabama the Tuscaloosa, but that is ir-elephant to what I was talking about”).
Nash was happy to keep his verses short and pithy, with the last word occasionally (but deliberately) misspelled to rhyme with the previous line (“For a baby, a bit of talcum is always walcum”).
Humorous prose and poetry comes from the erudite – and also from the clueless. Long-time Chicago mayor Richard J Daley was known for his frequent beheadings of the English language with such phrases as “I resent your insinuendoes” and “We shall reach even greater platitudes of achievement”. Also, “I don’t want to cast asparagus at my opponent!”
At the installation of a Dartmouth College president, a former governor of New Hampshire declared, “I am privileged to speak at this millstone in the history of this college”, and a Boston Globe feature reported that “the mountain is named for the Rev Starr King, who was an invertebrate climber and author of the book The White Hills”.
You could add Sarah Palin’s ‘refudiate’ and more George W Bush gems than I care to mention to that list.
As we all know, they are called malapropisms. What if a malapropism leaps across the vast chasm of absurdity and lands on the side of truth? Wordsmith Richard Lederer calls these bienapropisms. Here is a selection: We sold our house and moved into one of those pandemoniums.
Every morning my father takes exercises to strengthen his abominable muscles.
He suffered from unrequired love.