Confessions of a malaphiliac

My article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Confessions of a malaphiliac

A retired judge admits that he collects malaphors like they’re going out of tomorrow

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By Dave Hatfield

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, Keep your ear to the grindstone and send me your fractured phrases. Your inner geek is calling …

Dave Hatfield is a retired U.S. administrative law judge who lives in Marshall. (As for the malaphor in the headline, it combines “going out of style” with “like there’s no tomorrow.”)
First Published February 10, 2013 12:00 am

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Portmanteaus and single word malaphors

English: Illustration to the poem Jabberwocky....

English: Illustration to the poem Jabberwocky. A work by English illustrator Sir John Tenniel (1820-1914). First published in Carroll, Lewis. 1871. Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As you can see from the subject line, I am not delivering a malaphor of the day.  I thought I would sprinkle a few hopefully interesting discussions about malaphors and other wordplay issues on my blog.

Someone asked me if my word blend malaphors are actually portmanteaus. I don’t think so. The main difference is that a portmanteau is an intentional word blend while a malaphor is unintentional.  There are other differences:

A portmanteau is a combination of two (or more) words or morphemes, and their definitions, into one new word. A portmanteau word generally combines both sounds and meanings, as in smog, coined by blending smoke and fog. More generally, it may refer to any term or phrase that combines two or more meanings, for instance, the term “wurly” when describing hair that is both wavy and curly.

The word “portmanteau” was first used in this context by Lewis Carroll in the book Through the Looking-Glass (1871), in which Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice the coinage of the unusual words in Jabberwocky, where “slithy” means “lithe and slimy” and “mimsy” is “flimsy and miserable”. Humpty Dumpty explains the practice of combining words in various ways by telling Alice,

‘You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.’

My single word blend malaphors are unconscious blends of words to make an unintentional new word. The word sounds or looks correct at first blush, but then on closer examination is incorrect. Examples so far on my website are “Buckminster Palace” (Buckingham and Westminster, and/or possibly Buckminster Fuller) and “split-minute decision” (split second and last minute).

That’s been a pet dream of mine

This curious statement, heard years ago in a meeting, is a mash up of several thoughts, I think.  The speaker was trying to say “a dream” but was also probably thinking “pet project”.   “Pipe dream” also comes to mind.  One can’t ignore the possibility that “wet dream” as well as “pet peeve” were phrases floating in the subconscious (you had to know the guy).    There may be a thin line between that exciting pet dream and a wet dream.  Of course, I wouldn’t know…

The Thinking Man sculpture at Musée Rodin in Paris

The Thinking Man sculpture at Musée Rodin in Paris (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The last book I read was a real page burner

This congruent malaphor is a mash up of “page turner” and “barn burner”, both meaning something very exciting.   I like this one as it seems to stand on its own, describing a book that is so compelling that you seem to “burn” through it.    Then again,  it could mean something totally different for those fascist minded folks out there….

It takes a lot to take the air out of my sails

This was uttered by a guy who was frustrated by a spin class:

Maybe I Signed Up for Karaoke Instead of Spin by Accident?

It takes a lot to take the air out of my sails, but an unimpressive spin class will do that to me right quick. I actually felt bad that I’d made a friend come with me to this class because it was a pretty uninspiring way to spend 45 minutes. I have a limited amount of time to dedicate to my fitness regime: I don’t have time to ef around like this…

This is a mash up of “take the wind out of my sails” (feel less confident) and “let the air out of my tires” (make someone depressed).  I think he meant the latter.  See also a previous malaphor – “he took the thunder out of my sails”.

He doesn’t want to appear to be pushing on anyone’s toes

I can’t remember the context of this odd malaphor but it could be a mash up of “stepping on someone’s toes” (offend someone) and possibly “push the envelope” (to go further beyond the accepted limits).  However, I think “pushover” (a person easily taken advantage of)  or “pushy” (overly forward) is probably what the speaker was thinking of as he might be describing himself as both not offending his audience and taking advantage of them.

Don’t rock the apple cart

This congruent malaphor mixes the similar meaning phrases “upset the apple cart” and “rock the boat”.    A good example of the use of this malaphor is in a description of an Upper West Side apartment for rent:

“Minimum Age Limit For Renters : If you are coming to NYC for a big party weekend, this is probably not your place. I have fabulous neighbors and there is a great, great staff and take great care to not rock the apple cart.”