Did you really mean that?

Updated: 2011-10-30 07:46

By John Clark (China Daily)

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Thank heavens Los Angeles survived "Carmageddon". A busy freeway was closed for essential repairs. The road lay between two interchanges. Officials warned of chaos, even traffic meltdown. Motorists should remain at home.

I was copy-editing the story. My Chinese colleague went on: "Ripple effects were expected on other major highways. Commentators predicted that it could all end in an apostrophe."

I smiled. Obviously my pal meant to say catastrophe. A simple slip produced an amusing malapropism.

When we got married my girlfriend's mother called it a "gunshot wedding". Of course what she meant to say was a "shotgun wedding". But I wasn't being marched reluctantly (at gunpoint) to the altar to wed a girl in trouble. We had planned to marry and simply brought the date forward.

I enjoy malapropisms, but I'm not well read and my wife reminds me I haven't read the classics. She's a big fan of Baudelaire and Balzac. I thought they were French soccer players.

OK, so what if I haven't read the works of Thomas Hardy (my wife devoured them when she was about five). And I never got into Flaubert's Madame Bovary, but does it bovver me?

That's the thing about the classics: they'll always be there. My wife gave a young friend of 17 her prescribed reading list. Kevin will be 60 before he gets through it.

My reading style is more "sampling" - read a few pages, skip to the end. Maybe it will grab me. I read three or four books at once. Well, not at the same time. I'm not Oscar Wilde, who could hold a book in each hand and read them both at once.

I finished reading JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye a couple of weeks ago, a book I started when I was a student 30 years ago.

My point is that reading shouldn't be a chore. It should entertain. Lord of the Rings? Why bother to read Tolkien? Watch the DVDs.

A talent to amuse is a wonderful thing. The American humorist James Thurber makes me smile, and SJ Perelman makes me laugh out loud.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan is a very witty playwright. In The Rivals one of his characters is Mrs Malaprop, a widow. She's guardian of Lydia who is in love with an unsuitable young man. Mrs M asks the girl to "promise to forget this fellow, to illiterate (obliterate) him from your memory."

Later Mrs M admits: "I would by no means wish a daughter of mine to be a progeny (prodigy) of learning." She mangles the English language in funny ways.

I had a boss, a Cambridge grad with a dry sense of humor. When someone screwed up he would say, straight-faced: "I'm not casting nasturtiums (aspersions) at anyone".

Shakespeare was the master of malapropisms.

Bottom, in A Midsummer Night's Dream says: "lion vile hath here hath deflowered (devoured) my dearwhich was the fairest dame."

In Much Ado About Nothing, Constable Dogberry declares: "Comparisons are odorous (odious)."

Malapropisms still raise a laugh. The Sopranos is about a bunch of hard-boiled Italian-American New Jersey gangsters. They're street smart, but left school early.

Tony Soprano, who's under a psychiatrist, declares: "There's no stigmata (stigma) connected with going to a shrink". Family problems were causing "dysentery (dissent) in the ranks" according to Tony.

And then there's Feech, who's notorious for his "impermeable (interminable) stories".

I'll take the hint.

You can contact the writer at sundayed@chinadaily.com.cn.

For China Daily

(China Daily 10/30/2011 page15)