I listen to a lot of NPR. Unless the correspondent is doing a "man in the street"-type interview, the subjects generally appear intelligent, educated and literate. At least they used to. I've heard several malapropisms in recent weeks, some of which are so common that I figure it's time I spoke up.
(Spoke up again, that is; our longer-term readers may remember this.)
Committing a malapropism in a spoken context is harder to avoid than in writing; when you're speaking, prostate can just pop out of your mouth when you mean prostrate. But when you're writing, you've got a moment to think about the word you're using. If you've got even the slightest doubt that you're using it correctly, you have the luxury of googling it. So google it. Because, frankly, nothing makes you sound or look like more of an idjit than using a malapropism.
Take flout and flaunt. I'll let our friends at Merriam-Webster.com lay it out for you:
You flout convention; you flaunt your Gucci bag.
The word flout contains the word out, and when you're flouting something, you're generally venturing "out" of accepted standards. You may not be an outlaw, but you might be a floutlaw (if that were a thing). Also, flout contains an "o." The letter "o" also appears in the verb scorn, which is a synonym for flout, as are the "o" words scoff and mock (though the usage may vary somewhat if you use scorn, scoff or mock instead of flout).
Flaunt, on the other hand, contains the word aunt. I don't know about you, but my aunt has been known to flaunt her superiority in a number of areas, much to the irritation of my mother.
Disclaimer: Merriam-Webster.com does say: "Although transitive sense 2 of flaunt ["to treat contemptuously; flaunted the rules"] undoubtedly arose from confusion with flout, the contexts in which it appears cannot be called substandard ... If you use it, however, you should be aware that many people will consider it a mistake." As far as I'm concerned it is a mistake and thus substandard indeed.
Flaunt brings to mind staunch (because of the "aun" sound) and its frequent confusion with stanch.
One way to remember the difference between these two is noting that staunch is an adjective, as in, "He's a staunch supporter of voting rights for dogs," whereas stanch is a verb — "trying to stanch the crime wave" (another example from M-W.com).
Moreover, stanch sounds like stand — think of stanching something as standing in its way.
Disclaimer: Merriam-Webster.com cites "staunch" and "stanch" as variants of each other. This indicates undeniably which way the wind is blowing, but I strongly object, and I know how you enjoy my objections.
Next up is tenet vs. tenant.
Tenet: "A principle, belief, or doctrine generally held to be true; especially: one held in common by members of an organization, movement, or profession"
Tenant: "One who has the occupation or temporary possession of lands or tenements of another; specifically: one who rents or leases (as a house) from a landlord"
They had to throw "tenements" in there? It's nice to suggest the shared root (Middle English, from Anglo-French, from Latin tenēre, to hold), but we may as well muddle the issue further by throwing in a reference to former C.I.A. director George Tenet!
Tenant contains the word ant, and whether you've got a tenant or are a tenant, if there are ants in the house, something must be done. (By the way, ant season is nearly upon us here in SoCal. If you have a problem with the little fellers, ask me where to get the miraculous Chinese ant chalk, which is highly toxic and thus a flouter of EPA regulations.)
"Tenet," on the other hand, rhymes with Senate, which, presumably, is responsible for upholding the tenets of democracy. Huzzah!
Then there's gamut and gambit (not to mention gauntlet).
Gambit contains the word bit — you must use a bit of cunning when you formulate a gambit; likewise, it's best to use a bit of tact when deploying a conversational gambit. Another gambit for remembering the difference: Gamut has a "u" in it. The letter "u" also appears in run, which is usually what you do with a gamut.
A "bit," finally (at least for now), leads us to champ and chomp. So few people get this right that I doubt champing will be correct for long. In fact, M-W.com cites chomp and champ as "alterations" of each other.
Champ: "To make biting or gnashing movements; to show impatience of delay or restraint — usually used in the phrase champing at the bit; he was champing at the bit to begin"
Chomp: "To chew or bite on something; usually used in the phrase chomping at the bit"
I realize there's very little difference between these definitions. Be aware, though, that champ entered the language around 1530, according to the Oxford English Dictionary; chomp is clearly a parvenu — the OED dates it to 1645 and says that it is "now a widespread variant of champ."
Suffice it to say that Seabiscuit, a champ, likely champed at the bit on more than one occasion.
Are you also a foe of malapropisms? Which ones really bug you? Have you ever corrected someone who's used one in your presence? If so, how did you do it without making him or her feel like a numbskull?
(Quick story: A dear friend persistently mispronounced a difficult word. I didn't know how to correct her without causing embarrassment, so I remained mum. Then I saw her mispronounce it in front of a large group, at which several people simply blurted out the correct pronunciation. Talk about embarrassment! I should have told her, but even after this incident, I'm not sure what the protocol is in this circumstance.)
Flaunt your highly attuned ear for malapropisms in the comments below.
Julia Rubiner is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. She is also a personal-branding consultant, writing resumes, LinkedIn summaries and executive bios, among other tools, for people in creative fields who want to advance their careers. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, she was an editor of reference publications. Rubiner wears the label "word nerd" as a badge of honor.Click here to read other articles by Julia Rubiner
- Rate this article: