Confessions of a malaphiliac
Some people collect stamps. Others collect coins. I collect unintentional mixed idioms, or malaphors. Just call me a super geek — or, even better, The Malaphor King.
The term malaphor, a combination of metaphor and malaprop, was coined in 1976 in a Washington Post op-ed piece by Lawrence Harrison, a senior executive in the State Department. He found gems in endless bureaucratic meetings, such as “the project is going to pot in a hand basket,” and “he said it off the top of his cuff.” Considering the abundance of idioms and cliches now used in the English language, and with an aging population, unintentional blended phrases seem to be occurring with greater frequency.
My obsession began more than 30 years ago, when I heard about a colleague who had a reputation for uttering expressions that were “not quite right.” Employees would wait for his return from lunch, catching him when he was most prolific, perhaps due to a martini or two.
“Hey, the promotions are coming out and everyone’s sitting on their hands and needles” (blend of “sitting on their hands” and “pins and needles”). Or, “Why are you complaining? Our benefits are great; don’t rock the trough!” (mixture of “don’t rock the boat” and “feeding at the trough”). He was our Mr. Malaprop, the Norm Crosby of idiom mash ups. He was The Master.
Realizing that I was in the presence of a genius, I began to record the way his mind worked. His phrases were so subtle that if not written down immediately they would be lost forever. Of course, I could not tell him of my obsession because if he found out he would lose the gift. These mix-ups could only come from the unconscious mind.
I proceeded to set up a network of spies who would call me when The Master coughed up one of his confused conflations. Sometimes my weekends would be disturbed — no problem.
“Hey, Dave — just heard a beauty. Before our golf tournament started, we had a few players who came late so we needed to pick new foursomes. The Master said, ‘Why don’t we draw hats?’ ” (“draw straws” and “pick names out of a hat”).
“Hey, Dave — just heard this one from The Master at the bowling alley: ‘Man, that guy smokes like a fish!’ ” (combo of “smokes like a chimney,” “drinks like a fish” with a nod to smoked fish).
The Master inspired me so much that I have continued to collect malaphors to this day. Sports and politics are particularly fertile fields.
James MacDonald, starting pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was in a slump and had been pitching poorly since the All Star Break. He told the Post-Gazette there is a problem but “I can’t put my foot on it yet” (“can’t put my finger on it” and “put my foot in it” or “put my foot down”).
Tunch Ilkin, the radio voice of the Steelers, said after the Steelers committed their seventh turnover in the Browns game this past season, “They threw a bullet in their foot” (“shot themselves in the foot” and “dodged a bullet” or “took a bullet”).
In the 2008 presidential debate, then-Sen. Barack Obama said that his opponent, Sen. John McCain, thought he was “green behind the ears” (“wet behind the ears” and “green” as in inexperienced) when it came to foreign policy.
Herman Cain, a 2012 presidential candidate, said in response to an interviewer’s question, “I don’t shoot from the lip” (“shoot from the hip” and “giving lip”).
With hundreds collected over three decades, I am now posting malaphors on a regular basis on my website, www.malaphors.com. Keep your ear to the grindstone and send me your fractured phrases. Your inner geek is calling …
First Published February 10, 2013 12:00 am