Wordly Benefits: Well, check out what you mean

It is almost impossible to exhaust, in a couple of write-ups, the names of authors and their characters which often come alive in our day-to-day language.

Written by Amitabh Ranjan | Updated: April 14, 2016 1:05 pm

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It is almost impossible to exhaust, in a couple of write-ups, the names of authors and their characters which often come alive in our day-to-day language. I am still tempted to take off from where I had left the last time and look up a few more such words and expressions which have provided a timeless flavour to the English lexicon.

If I were to tell you the names of a few characters from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play ‘The Rivals’, like Captain Absolute, Lydia Languish or Sir Lucius O’Trigger, they are unlikely to make any sense for you unless you have gone through the work. But a large number of literate people will immediately recognize Mrs Malaprop as a character from the play even if they have not gone through it. It is through her that the beautiful word ‘malapropism’ has become a fixture of English language.

Mrs Malaprop’s problem is that her linguistic pretensions extend beyond her grasp of vocabulary. She tries to embellish her dull chat with difficult words she doesn’t understand. The result is that her speech is filled with words that may sound vaguely like the words she wants but are nevertheless totally and amusingly wrong. Therefore, malapropism is a blundering use of a word that sounds like the one intended. In general, it is contrived for comical effect but is often used unintentionally, as when somebody says “he took the accelerator to the third floor of the mall”.

The name itself comes from the French ‘mal a propos’, meaning not apropos, inappropriate.

A well-known modern day Mrs Malaprop was Jane Ace, wife of comedy writer Goodman Ace who played the role of a malapropism inclined character on the American radio programme ‘The Easy Aces’. Her fractured rendition of an old saying became something of a radio classic: “Time wounds all heels.”

The adjective ‘quixotic’ comes from the name of the eponymous hero of Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’. He was a would-be knight who believed that it was his mission to correct the wrongs of the world. So, one who entertains idealistic, impractical and unattainable notions is called quixotic. Utopian and utopianism come very close to quixotic and quixotism in essence.

The Yahoos, a tribe of brutes with human form, in Jonathan Swifts’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, embody all the vices of mankind. A yahoo is consequently a lout, a ruffian, or a rowdy.

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