Thursday, November 10, 2011

Misused phrases

For some reason, these amuse me.  I’m talking about well-known phrases which people have misheard and then go ahead and misuse.  The more priggish they sound when they misuse them, the better.

I’ve often promised that I’ll put together a list of these one day, but I keep forgetting, then I keep forgetting the misused phrases too.  Here’s a first stab at a list, I’ll add more as I think of them. 

There needs to be a name for this sort of thing and for all I know there is.  ‘Misused phrases’ is a bit lame.  Malapropism isn’t quite right because in some cases the phrase as (mis-)used has the same meaning as the original phrase.  It’s just that the words within the phrase are changed so they make no sense at all. If anyone has a better idea, let me know.

Here’s the list so far (there are lots more, I just can’t remember them at this moment):

1. Wallah! (instead of Voilà).  This is hilarious because…. well, what do people think they’re saying?  Trying to sound clever, you are doing it rong.  I’ve heard this said out loud a few times and I might have misheard it.  But I’ve also seen it in comment threads loads of times and often without being ridiculed.

2. It’s a doggy dog world (instead of It’s a dog-eat-dog world).  Again, what is it these people think they are saying?  To be fair, the ‘correct’ phrase is bewilderingly stupid anyway.  I have never once seen a dog eat a dog. While I daresay it occasionally happens, for me it is not the main defining feature of the planet. (I know the original phrase is a bizarre invoking of a counterfactual world where dogs eat dogs to get ahead in dog society, but that doesn’t actually make a great deal of sense either.)

3. It’s a removable feast (instead of It’s a movable feast). An interesting one, this. Phrases are often things that have an identity separate from their actual words.  They become a bit like a word themselves in that we don’t think of the constituents. In this case, someone has changed one of the words in the phrase anyway, preserving the spirit of its modern usage by adapting it to a new situation, but decoupling it from its origins and resulting in it making no sense at all.  So it seems to be taking a phrase, breaking it apart into words, changing the words, then assembling it back into a phrase which is not supposed to have a literal meaning.  A moveable feast is a celebration like Easter which happens on a different date every year.  A removable feast sounds like you’re sitting at the table, knife and fork in hand, tablecloth tucked into your shirt, gazing forlornly as someone takes all the food away.

4. For all intensive purposes (instead of for all intents and purposes).  Well, perhaps people think they’re talking about those purposes that are especially important or crucial, but this is such a different meaning from the ‘correct’ phrase that it’s hard to know what was going on in people’s minds when they heard the original used correctly.

5. Begging the question. This annoys me less than it used to.  It has a technical meaning, which is a logical fallacy related to circular reasoning (you assume the answer in the very asking of the question) but it’s often used to mean that something raises a question.  In some ways, it seems fair enough.  Some situations actually do seem to beg questions. Or rather, for questions to be answered.  Perhaps people should say it begs the answers.  But on the other hand, the phrase has an existing technical meaning and there’s no need to steal it for another purpose.  Get your own phrase, you moocher.

6. Escape goat (instead of a scape goat). I have no idea at all what’s going on here.  What’s an escape goat supposed to be?  If anything, it seems like an escape goat might be the exact opposite of a scape goat.  Someone heard the phrase, completely failed to understand what it meant and used it anyway.

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