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Opinion >  Column

Front Porch: Muskrat fire could be hard on the diagram

Having carped here long and loudly about the misuse of words, I thought I would try to stretch myself and see if I could find something good to say about language and its usage today.

Sure, there are politicians and teachers and a few others who are wonderful orators and who use language well, but my self-inflicted challenge is to say something nice about modern-day speech in general.

Nope, can’t do it. But what I can do is enjoy the heck out of language when it goes awry, but in a fun way. And so, I give you malapropisms – those words that sound ever so close to being right but just miss by a little. You know what the person meant to say, but he or she just didn’t quite land it.

These are words filled with good intentions, unintentional slip-ups that turn routine moments into pure pleasure (provided you’re not the deliverer of the words). The comedian Norm Crosby made a nice living in his stand-up routines deliberately mispronouncing words, which brought a lot of laughs. He would place his hand on his abdomen and talk about speaking from the diagram. Badaboom.

But malapropisms aren’t a rarified species. They live and breathe all around us. What follows is true, cross my heart.

A faculty member I know at a nearby university told me about a paper turned in by one of his students, in which there was a description of soldiers lining up to attack the enemy. The student wrote that the men aimed and then fired their muskrats at the men coming toward them.

I would have paid good money to see that.

My father-in-law had a whole vocabulary full, from which he drew frequently. An old Iowa farmer none too fond of paying taxes, he would liken the folks in Washington, D.C., to swine at the trough when speaking of politicians and pork barrel projects – or, as he put it, “those blankety-blanks feeding from the public coffins.”

Tempted as I am, in light of the nation’s current economic mess, to expound on his accidental clarity, I think I’ll just let his statement stand on its own. Draw your own conclusions about his wisdom.

A good friend of mine – who shall remain nameless, as I wish to maintain the friendship – was once in a gift shop in the Southwest admiring two round objects. You’ve no doubt seen what she was holding – those rocks that when cut in two reveal beautiful crystals inside. And they have a name.

So, my friend, wanting to get her husband’s attention, he being on the other side of the store, shouted out, holding high the prized items, “Honey, come here and look at these gonads!”

I am told that everyone, and I do mean everyone, in the store looked, except, of course, for her husband, who was trying to make himself very small as he moved slowly, slowly toward the door.

Yes, it should have been muskets; it should have been coffers; it should have been geodes. But how boring that would have been.

Sometimes when words go astray, they lighten the moment and give everyone a smile (again, except for the utterer). And after a little time and the repeated telling of the story, even the culprit can smile about it. I know my friend does. And if there is an afterlife, I hope my father-in-law is feeling vindicated.

So there, I can too say something kind of nice about word usage today. But don’t get me started on noun-verb agreement. Or the verbal assault of the word “like” used six times in the same sentence. Those wait for another time (soon).

I close this celebration of malapropisms by inappropriately combining and taking totally out of context portions of separate remarks attributed to baseball team manager Danny Ozark and Gib Lewis, Texas speaker of the House, that this is all beyond my apprehension and unparalyzed in the history of the state.

Contact correspondent Stefanie Pettit by e-mail at

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