by Des MacHale Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at University College Cork
It is my contention that, pound for pound, this country has contributed more to international humour than any other nation. We may mention the Irish bull, the Limerick and the Irish joke and virtually every Irish man and woman is a practicing comedian. In 1775, the Irish dramatist, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751—1816) wrote a play called The Rivals, a rollicking comedy featuring a character called Mrs Malaprop, a lady prone to hilarious verbal blunders, one of her most famous being ‘an allegory on the banks of the Nile’. Thus, a new comic art form was born, now called the malapropism, the name derived from the French mal a propos, loosely meaning, ‘ill to the purpose.’ In England these witty gems are sometimes patriotically called Sam Wellerisms, after the character in Dickens, who sometimes uttered them, and there is even a hint of them in Shakespeare from a character named Dogsberry. But to the world at large they are best known as malapropisms, and we Irish can lay claim to this superb comic art form.
Simply put, a malapropism is the (usually unconscious) replacement of one word by another of like sound or form but with radically different meaning, which conjures up a totally different image from the one intended. The best malapropisms are those where the new unintended meaning is often a better description of the situation in question. For example, there was the lady saying she bought her coat at a ‘jungle sale’, and the man complaining of ‘Ulsters’ in his stomach. They are an excellent example of Edgar Allan Poe’s dictum—a little learning is a dangerous thing. In general. the listener is aware of the blunder but the speaker is not, and sometimes it is hard to keep a straight face. A friend of mine for example once told me that he was severely ‘bitten by midgets’ on a summer’s evening.
Malapropisms occur most often with longer technical words derived from Latin or Greek and are more common since the decline of classical languages in school. They are rife in medicine, science, literature, religion and foreign languages and in fact in any technical area where the layperson blunders in. It is widely accepted that the female gender far outstrips the male in the ability to create these comic masterpieces, which are first cousins of the Irish bull, the blunder, the blooper, the boner, the slip of the tongue and even the Freudian slip, where many a true word is spoken in jest. Amazingly, nearly all of the examples to follow are genuine, and if one sits down to create artificial ones, as I and many other authors have done, the results never approach the genius level of the real thing from the lips of their genuine creators. In honour of our Sheridan’s great character I have chosen to report them all from the mouth of Mrs Vagina Malaprop, and keep your ears pricked, because she may be living near you!
I joined the local ambulance service and one night we were called out to a house where a man had been involved in a fire. Sadly, he died before we got there. What a pity we didn’t arrive sooner or we could have resuffocated and survived him.
I am a confirmed septic about the claims of alternative medicine.
I am sorry my father wasn’t a surgeon because when I went to hospital I would have been given the RIP treatment.
Just a day after he died, vigour mortis set in.
I am spending a lot of time in the bathroom at the moment because I have an attack of dire rear.
My husband had a tuba on his brain but thankfully it turned out to be non-militant.
For the long winter ahead, I intend to infest in some terminal underwear.
I do not approve of unmarried couples corabbiting together.
There was a nudist standing starch naked on the beach.
My sister never married but remained a sphincter all her life.
I can no longer read the face on my watch, so I am going to buy one of those genital watches.
Mrs Malaprop was introducing her future son-in-law to a neighbour. She told her, ‘This is my daughter’s fiasco’.
I believe in capital punishment for children in school as long as it is not too severe.
Pythagoras was the first man to breed a hypotenuse in captivity.
I have just bought a pair of those wonderful waterproof knickers they use in the continent.
My new car is a hunchback.
I think the law is too laxative on criminals.
Some of Mrs Malaprop’s favourite songs and music : The Ants are my Friends; I’ve thrown a Custard in her Face; The Marriage of Fig Roll; Sam and Janet Evening; Your Walrus Hurt the One You Love; I left my Heart with some Franciscans; The Slurry with the Fridge on Top; Elgar’s Enema Variations; Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Ryvita; Puccini’s Madam Buttermilk; Just a Pong at Toilet; Verdi’s Rectum.
I was nearly drowned at the seaside, but a lifeguard rescued me and gave me artificial insemination. An octopus had pulled me under and wrapped his testicles round me.
Consternation is when you have not been to the toilet for a week.
I asked my solicitor to add a cul de sac to my will.
My daughter is studying cookery in Paris. Recently she was awarded the condom blue.
Mrs Malaprop on reproduction: I had not demonstrated for three months and knew I was stagnant. I had the baby by the Cistercian method without an epiduracell. They cut the biblical cord and now I am going through the mental pause and having hot flashes.
Mrs Malaprop’s son is studying for a doctorate. He hopes to submit his Ph.D. faeces soon.
I went to the doctor and he diagnosed sick as hell anemia.
The highlight of my trip to Paris was a visit to the Awful Tower.
In Egypt, the Mediterranean and the Red Sea are connected by the Sewage Canal.
Milligan was the first man to circumcise the globe with a forty foot clipper.
My twins are very alike—just like two pees in a pot.
Japanese businessmen commit suicide by cash and carry.
Fidel Castrato was the president of Cuba.
My husband was so good on our honeymoon that I gave him a standing ovulation.
Mrs Malaprop’s favourite jazz singer is Elephants Gerald.
In church I cannot hear a word of the sermon because of the poor quality of the agnostics.
I am fed up of making beds, so I am getting rid of all my blankets and using bidets instead.
I was seriously ill in hospital so they put me in expensive care.
Some of my favourite films are Captain Corelli’s mandarin, Arsenal and Old lace, Dancing at Lufthansa, Butch Cassidy and Some Damn Kid, and Colostomy Jane.
A gentleman is someone who gives up his seat to a lady in a public convenience.
Mrs Malaprop does not wear much makeup. But she likes a little massacre on her eyes.
What impressed me most about the big hotel we stayed in was the revolting door at the front.
The police picked up my son once on suspicion of burglary, but he had a cast iron ali baba that he was somewhere else at the time.
I am not putting my head in a moose for anyone.