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Posted: January 15, 2012 2:23 p.m.

The world of word play

It’s January. The holidays are over and most of us have taken down the holiday decorations and returned to normal. I say most of us because I have a friend who will tell me for the next two months that she has to find the time to dedecorate. Her husband says he finds Christmas decorations in July. But she usually gets it done by March. I like her use of dedecorate. It’s not a word, but it gets the point across. And she has been dedecorating for at least the last 15 years. 

We English teachers find humor in word play, whether intentional or accidental. And some of the best humor comes from the misuse or words or even the creation of new words or meanings for words. Usually it is a child who misuses a word and that word becomes a family tradition. A good example of that is the different interpretations children usually come up with for grandmother. I bet if you took a survey of your friends, you would find over 10 different names in use for grandmother and another 10 or more for grandfather.

My husband is good source of creative words. He calls the accelerator of the car the footfeet. It was initially called a footfeed as the accelerator was once a lever on the steering column. When it became a pedal on the floorboard, it was called the footfeed to distinguish it from the original accelerator. Footfeet is close; my husband just gets the last letter wrong. But if he is yelling, “Mash the footfeet,” at you, it can be a bit disconcerting.

He once asked me for a debutante glass. What he wanted was a cordial glass, a small stemmed glass for liquors. He knew he wanted a small glass and he knew a demitasse cup was a small cup of coffee. He also knew that wasn’t right because he wanted a glass, not a cup. So he substituted a word close to demitasse. I knew exactly what he wanted. 

I think that is called a malapropism, which is the incorrect use of a word by substituting a similar-sounding word with different meaning, usually with comic effect. The word comes from a character, Mrs. Malaprop, in a play called “The Rivals.” An example of Mrs. Malaprop’s misuse of the English language is, “she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile.”

But my very favorite word from my husband is the pits of itome. He wanted to say something was really awful, but he got it’s the pits and epitome confused. The pits of itome is used in a derogatory way. Such as, someone is stealing the poor child’s bike; that’s the pits of itome. It’s not a malapropism. It could be a spoonerism. A spoonerism is an error in speech or in which corresponding consonants or vowels are switched.  “The Kinquering Congs Their Titles Take” is attributed to Spooner. But the pits of itome really isn’t that.  Maybe it is a portmanteau word which became three words. Portmanteau (suitcase) words are two words packed into one word that carries the meaning of both words. A good example is smog which combines smoke and fog. Anyway in my family the pits of itome a favorite saying.

Another favorite linguistic contortion of mine is the children’s misconception of a line in “Silent Night.” “Round yon virgin, mother and child” becomes “Round John Virgin, mother and child.” One linguist calls these misconceptions mondegreens because of a misinterpretation of the last line of a ballad. The lines should read “They hae slain the Earl O’Moray, And laid him on the green.” The misinterpretation was “They hae slain the Earl O’Moray And Lady Mondegreen.”

My children and I used to visit my parents each summer in Tampa. We would go to the beach, and my children would beg to go to confessions. They wanted to buy a soft drink and a candy bar. I like the fact that confessions would reward you with a soft drink.

All families have some little saying that is an inside joke. In my father’s family it was, “Oh, you boil ’em.” It was a statement made famous by my uncle after he had married and had children of his own. It was made on the occasion of coloring Easter eggs. He couldn’t understand why his kept breaking. 

 

 

Paula Travis is a Newton County resident and retired schoolteacher. She can be reached at ptravis@covnews.com. 

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