Malapropism - Pledge

malapropism: ridiculous misuse of words, especially through confusion caused by resemblance in sound.[1]

I have a peculiar love of malapropism. Anyone who has known me for long—anyone who has spoken in front of me long enough to misspeak—anyone who has gambled in knowing me long enough to have had the bad luck of misspeaking in front of me—knows the childish glee I get from any verbal flub or infelicity. Around most strangers and acquaintances I am respectfully silent. But should a close friend or relative make the slightest slip, I’ll flash on them and smile in their face with wide-eyed wonder. Of course, I have to be in a good mood to lower another’s.

Now, to some degree this linguistic schadenfreude is a familial trait. Should someone mispronounce a word or trip on their own tongue within our hearing, my family will rear every one of its grinning heads like a herd of velociraptors. And yet my particular delight in malapropism, in particular words misused or mingled (but not quite mangled), is a little more specifically mine. It has become a kind of hobby of memory to remember the specific solecisms I’ve heard. Many a simple misstep has become a special moment to me.

And yet, I consider myself a kind enough person. An empathetic, or at least empathetically educated, person. I consider myself a person.

Now, one of the reasons I love a good malapropism is because it often says more about its speaker than it does about itself. It is more an expression of personality—temperament, interests, experience, thought-process—than it is an error in language. I think of this as a more universally acceptable appreciation of malapropism—which therefore makes the appreciator more relatable.

At surface-hearing, a malapropism is funny because of its incongruity. It strikes the well-trained ear as off-key with the rest of the pitched world. It’s funny the way a bad tuba note used to be funny. The most civilized, language-conforming speakers will laugh at a malapropism mostly out of spite or embarrassment: as a way of shaking the filthy thing off. I will certainly admit to succumbing to the less superior superficial perception of malapropism. Once, shortly after the third and thankfully last “Star Wars” prequel came out, I watched a preschool boy menace another with the vicious proclamation, “I AM JENNIFER GRIEVOUS!” The comedy was not only in the child’s insistent reminders to his playmate that he had another but unseen set of arms—which presumably stopped flailing every time he paused to point them out to his playmate—but also his bombastic confidence that he knew, owned, and was the dreaded general: a ruthless, thick-voiced, armor-plated, brain-skinned, snake-eyed, four-armed, lightsaber-wheeling monster who goes by the name of Jennifer.

But I sincerely believe that when I laugh at a malapropism I am not merely laughing at the person who speaks it. I am laughing because of them. I would be more than happy to laugh with them, but I am usually the one to laugh first, and that seems to be enough in most cases. Anyway, a malapropism is one potential source of what I have elsewhere called the comedy of acceptance. With a malapropism, the acceptance is often very one-sided, at least if the laughing is out-loud. When someone misspeaks around me, I would rather not correct them, because I wouldn’t want them any other way. At this point in my growing up, I try my best not even to laugh, because I do not want that raw person-essence to flee. Everyday so many humans are hiding behind saved faces, and who they are is far more good-and-pleasant than good diction.

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OH; or, “The Original Hipster”

[This essay is obviously quite belated. By now there have been numerous articles that more thoroughly study the many screes that cover the hipster mountain. In this I am not attempting any new insights about fashion, postmodernism, history, or that most contentious of all topics, fretted over nearly beyond recognition, irony. I myself am usually many years late to any game, and take a long time for reflection. So I hope it is apparent that most of all in this essay I am analyzing my own particular responses and, within them, my characteristic failures to see.]

IMG_0386  (Rare depiction of a young, hopeful Ishmael setting off in search of Experience by Rockwell Kent.)

Call him Ishmael, but also call him American. Because like so many Americans, Ishmael has a tattoo. In fact, he may have more than one. Like so many dudes, his is on his arm. You can imagine how cool it looks, considering how yoked he must be from all of his whaling experiences. All that manly pulling of ropes and . . . um . . . barrel carrying.

But actually, the one tattoo he mentions in his narrative, and the only one we know about, is a detailed enumeration of a sperm whale’s measurements. So Ishmael’s tattoo is in fact a flesh-bound fascicle of the very material for which many consider Moby-Dick to be an old, long, and “difficult” (aka boring) book: all those dry, technical, often prolix passages of whaling minutiae better situated in a scholarly work than in a high seas chase novel. “And then the great whale’s heart burst, clouding the air with blood, raining hunks of exploded life-stuff down to plash piece by piece into the roiling water like so many melting rubies . . . Now, in this next chapter, I’d like us to examine the ways in which the throwing of a harpoon can be as exciting to read as any operator’s manual.” No, no—in truth, I like, love, and greatly admire the vast majority of Melville’s novel. To me it is a loose baggy monster only in the best sense. It is full of so much. Including an interesting example of American tattooing before it was a thing.

For some time now there has been a trend of getting antique-looking tattoos on one’s body—usually somewhere frequently publicly visible, very often the forearm. I am not the one to write even a brief history of this fashion, and I refuse to do the research to do so. But I am assured by my sheer experience of “the culture” that it is a thing.

And actually, the thing is part of a much larger trend that by now is commonly called hipsterism. Well, not exactly: it’s not in fact enough of a movement with a collective cause or shared experience or set of agreed-upon principles to be deemed an –ism, but it is widespread enough to have become a real presence in the culture. From the fact that we in Portland have a “Hipster Santa,” plus the recurrence of hipster parodies in the mainstream culture (such as in shows like 30 Rock and Brooklyn Nine-Nine), we can infer the existence of some essential facets to being a hipster. We all seem to have a higher idea already in mind when we discern the outward signs of a true hipster on the street.

For many, the phrase “the old is new again” will likely sum up the hipster style nicely. And indeed it gets very close to the subject. At least, it gets very close to what I in this essay will be calling “hipsterism” or “historical hipsterism.”[1] Portlandia famously satirized historical hipsterism with its “Dream of the 1890s.” Knitwear, suspenders, straight razors, muttonchops, handlebar mustaches, artisan everything. These are things that people are not doing still, but are doing for the first time for themselves. However, they are not doing these things because they need them, but because they like the idea of them, and because they want to be seen doing them. The Portlandia segment approaches the ostentation of the hipster enterprise through its lyrics—“Micro-brew or die”; but it most clearly captures hipster affectation in its visuals: the blank, grim, and often forbidding stares of Fred Armison and his fellows are pointed at the viewer from over their gargantuan whiskers. The facial hair is exaggerated and fancified as it has not been for over a hundred years, and they stare at you as if they were standing for their first daguerreotype.

Here I think Portlandia has caught something unique but elusive or hidden, perhaps latent, in at least some hipster self-fashioning. It is more than just plain old-fashioned coolness, though it is related to it. It does indeed want to seem not to care much about anything, to seem effortless in the midst of so many trying.[2] It is, indeed, ironic, but not necessarily deviant for doing things this way: as writers like Jen Doll and Ann Powers have pointed out in response to Christy Wampole’s judgments, irony has been a fact of human living for some time. But in its selection of certain historic American clothing and hairstyles, often caricatured even by 19th century standards, historical hipsterism seeks to take a specific kind of step away from the crowd. It is more than a mode of donning parody. It is more than unsmiling self-satire.

The danger, or at least provocation, of hipsterism seems to me to be pomposity. Hipsters can take not taking themselves seriously very seriously. It is this tendency that I think defenders of hipsterism and irony do not always address: the investing of irony with self-importance. Perhaps some of it is treating parody as fine art. Whatever the case, at least on a superficial level, hipsters seem to be the opposite of unassuming—and yet what they assume is not easily traceable to themselves. Like many stylish people, hipsters are practitioners of being seen. To me at least, they are constantly being-seening. I can’t imagine any of the nattier dandified kind making toast, getting sick, or sitting on the toilet, so imposing is their toilette. (Not that I really want to imagine the last on the list, by the way, but think about it: can you easily imagine a young man with the proudly up-turned mustaches of a Union general hunched over in so naked, undignified, and basically human a posture?) I sometimes believe such people don’t want me to know they own pajamas, or even a bed for that matter. And on top of all that there arisen that aloofness or self-distancing that’s become so notorious. There’s a self-focused gesturing that never looks at anyone. This is obviously not true, and humanly impossible, but the appearance of it is a noticed phenomena. Simply Google the words “aloof hipster” and see what you get. There is a real sense to some that hipster will not grant you entry into the compound circle of their orbits. It’s as if they are monks of coolness, who have sworn themselves to themselves, and made a vow to style itself.

I would say this view of the hipster is really of the mythical “arch-hipster.” It is largely a stereotype. And as far as irony is concerned, its strategies have become so normalized by now that perhaps, as Doll said, it’s really a matter of moderation.[3] But I have to confess that the stereotype of hipster aloofness is one that I can relate to having perceived as true. At times I have been just as judgmental as Wampole in my estimation of the ostensible “hipster lifestyle”—or at least their style of dress. And I suppose that has been just the problem for so many: “hipsterism” of such an outwardly totalizing nature flaunts an affected lifestyle as pure style, leaving nothing known but the gesture itself. To me, an arch-hipster bares no experience in their get-up. They are all gotten-up, with no sign of where they’ve gone or where they’re going. The outfit, when taken from a century out of context, doesn’t even represent a currently relatable occasion, much less any individual background. Here is the barista with the Woolrich vest and John Brown beard. The side of his scalp is strictly shaved, but from the asymmetrical side-part his hair flows like some force of nature. What happens when you look him in the face?

Continue reading “OH; or, “The Original Hipster””

The Comedy of Acceptance

Sam Weller

When I was in college one of my friends told me a story about her younger brother. He was a typical high school boy in many ways: excitable, impetuous, demanding, hungry, pungent, psyched, and yet strangely indolent and dim at times of rest; depending on dinner—whether he’d had it yet; whether it was what he’d wanted—he could be enormously proud, kingly even, towering and solid in his person, or else morose, Jobian, hyper-sensitive, and easily cut to the quick. But one of the most unique particulars to my friend’s brother was his logical-linguistic faculty, his individual reason in his individual language. His own personal left side of the brain. How he expressed his opinion on something often had the subtlety of an errant anvil. “Hammer and tongs” is supposed to imply rigorous, constructive, usually dialogical debate or conversation. His was the surprise singular dropping of cold hard dumbness on nothing. That was my impression at the time of my hearing this story, anyway.

It happened one Saturday afternoon that my friend and her family were out running errands. At one of their stops, my friend’s brother came across a bag of assorted candies. The candies reminded him of candy. Candy reminded him of other times he had had candy. Those remembered times reminded him that he liked candy. The memory of liking reminded him that he liked liking. It was only a short neurological distance before the connection was made: thought became want, want became desire, desire became need. He bought the bag of candies—that is, he put the bag in his parents’ basket.

But somewhere along the way home the assorted candies remained unopened, even in the brightness of their colorful wrappers. Maybe they drove through some place on the way home. Maybe his digestion caught up with him sitting in the van.

Whatever the reason, desire had subsided somehow. Driving back, my friend’s brother asked their dad if he wanted to have the candy instead. Their dad, busy doing the actual driving, muttered an affirmative commonplace: Sure, I’ll eat anything, you know.

When they got home, after the usual bland shuffling and settling, my friend’s mother began preparing that ever-promised meal, covenanted daily since childhood, dinner. My friend’s brother, seeing these preparations, asked what it was supposed to be—a question freighted with sphinxlike gravity. I do not remember what it was, or what he was expecting, but the brother did not like the answer. He bemoaned his mother’s choice. He decried the item’s very existence. He cried violence against his hankerings. In his lamentations he opened the bag of candies and began unwrapping and eating them, one solitary piece at a time.

Just then my friend’s dad, coming through the sliding glass door from the backyard, gave out a more neutral, dadly bark at the brother.


“Why didn’t you clean the backyard? You said you were going to. You didn’t do it.”

“What? I can do it later.”

“I told you to do it before we left. Actually I told you to do it last night.

“I wasn’t home last night.”

“You were before you left. You were home this morning. You didn’t do it either of those times.”

“I will in a minute, okay? God.”

“Don’t swear that at me. You said you were going to. It’s a mess out there.”


“It’s not God’s fault it looks like a goddamned warzone out there . . .”

“Well it’s not my fault that dinner’s gonna suck.”

“. . . piles of poop everywhere out there. What did you say?”

“That’s why I’m being a jerk.”

Tempers grew higher, and voices grew louder. Feelings were hurt, faces were fuming. At some point my friend joined the cause of her parents, and then the whole family was gathered in the dispute. Or rather, father, mother, and sister united against brother. They got to a point where they had each chimed in some death-knell against his callow moral rectitude. At first, he took these rebukes harder and harder, and grew more blockheaded against them. But soon their steady words had the effect of erosion. Looking around him, his conviction softening, he issued one last defense at the head of his accusers. He looked with dread seriousness at his dad and said:

“Well at least I got you candy!

They all stared wide-eyed at him. They looked at each other, gasping for words, only to look back at him in utter dumbfoundedness.

They stood shocked as if a boulder had rolled through the living room.

Finally the dad’s stern, straight face cracked a slow grin, and he broke into a laugh. The sister and the mother soon followed, and even the brother began to smile uncertainly. It wasn’t long before the whole tense body of the family relaxed in laughter, the kind of just-pent-up, now-released laughter so much like hard-earned tears.

My friend shook with laughter as she recounted this story to me. Approaching the climactic words, she had to stop and catch her breath. She made many false starts, having to smooth the smile from her cheeks so that she could speak. But the smile stayed there because the surprise of her brother still stood in her mind.

I had seen her annoyed with him many times. I myself had been more than annoyed with him many times. I thought him the worst kind of fool: proud, with big shoulders. Certainly my friend had plenty of reason to complain about her baby brother. On the worst of days, his seat of reason was a highchair from which he tossed a mess of clanging slop around her, not even aware of her trying to pick it up. But at that moment, still reliving his utterly unique response, her face showed the exact opposite of annoyance. Even as she had cringed and frowned before when telling of his churlishness, my friend now smiled with lucid joy when clumsiness. But she wasn’t laughing at him, she was laughing because of him, and the smile lasted far longer than the laughter. It was the facial expression of that good old English word, so underused nowadays, mirth.

Continue reading “The Comedy of Acceptance”