Recently in the Malapropisms Category

Back in December, linguistics grad student Gretchen McCulloch analyzed joke variants on Benedict Cumberbatch's name to see what the underlying patterns are. She gave more statistical detail in a post on her blog.

Interesting and fun discussion, but I found it odd (in the Toast article) that it took her a couple of iterations to come up with initial-syllable stress as a factor; that part seemed obvious to me. But maybe she was guiding readers through a process of figuring it out, rather than describing the actual process she went through.

I also would've liked to've seen some further discussion about whether secondary stress on the final syllable of each word is relevant, but secondary stress is tricky and might've been too much of a digression.

...I also found it interesting that some of the specific examples don't work for me; in particular, I would never have guessed that “Bombadil Rivendell” was a Cumberbatch variation. (At first I thought she was saying it was a non-valid example, but then she says it came from the generator.) I think my own personal rules for what sounds like a variant of his name are stricter than the ones implied by the name generator. Another example: “Beetlejuice Animorph” doesn't sound to me like a joke on “Benedict Cumberbatch” except in the context of discussing Cumberbatchian names.

And I think she may not go far enough in some directions. The PronunciationManual joke pronunciation video for Benedict Cumberbatch opts for “Bucket Crunderdunder,” which isn't a perfect variation but is a funny one. And I think if someone said “I'm a big fan of that actor Bucket Crunderdunder,” I would know who they were talking about. Though in large part that's because (as McCulloch mentions) if one of the names is really obvious, the other one doesn't have to be. In other words, the “Bucket” part is almost useless, but “Crunderdunder” carries the variation almost on its own.

(I think The Cumberbatch Variations would be a good Fake Ludlum Title.)

I'd also have liked to see her try to construct new variations to test her hypotheses. For example, we could start with a pair of three-syllable words with initial stress, like “Higgledy Piggledy,” and see whether transforming them in accordance with her rules produces a valid variation:

Ends in consonant: Higgledip Piggledip.

Begins with B and/or hard C sounds: Biggledip Kiggledip.

Second word ends in preferred consonant: Biggledip Kiggledish.

She said that a good variant should have at least three of the listed factors. I think this one probably works: “I'm a big fan of that actor Biggledip Kiggledish.” Probably close enough. I'll go on to add her other rules:

N or M between first two syllables: Bimmeldip Kinneldish.

Has æ in final syllable: Bimmeldip Kinneldash.

Yep, Bimmeldip Kinneldash is definitely a valid variation. (For best results, I would tweak it a bit to Bunnydip Kenneldash.) But that's also because using all five of her rules transforms any pair of dactylic words into being awfully close to the original name. So I think that part of what's going on with those rules is that they demonstrate the allowable variations for certain phonemes to “sound like” certain other phonemes to English speakers. Nasals sound similar, sibilants sound similar, etc. So if you take a word and replace the sounds in it with other ones that sound similar, then you'll get a word that sounds similar to the original.

To be clear: I'm not trying to disparage her rules! I think they're neat, and it's a good analysis, and the at-least-three part is especially interesting to me. I certainly would never have figured out most of this. So I don't intend this post as criticism; just exploring the ideas.

Exasperated problems

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This just in from the AP, by way of AOL:

[...] spacewalking repairs may be needed sometime after Discovery leaves this weekend. The problem is exasperated by the fact that a period of intense sunlight on the space station is fast approaching[...].

—"Astronauts take 3rd, final spacewalk; valve stuck, by Marcia Dunn, AP

(It may have been corrected by the time you see this, though. I saw it an hour or two after it was posted.)

I know, I know, people make mistakes all the time, and I generally see no need to call attention to them. I was just amused by this one.



I don't usually open 419-scam emails, but I happened to glance at this one, and was amused at a particular phrase:

Dear Sir/Ma,

My name is Mr.Gat Butu

I am from Portugal. I have been diagnosed

with Esophageal cancer. It

has defiled all forms of medical treatment,and right now I have only

about a few months to live, according to medical experts.

I think the idea of a form of cancer that defiles all forms of medical treatment is kind of poetic. Ptooey! I spit on your medical treatment!

Okay, here's a bonus spam quote, from a different 419 scam email:

Dear friend

I am writting this letter with due respect and heartful of tears since we have not known or met ourselves previously.

That's pretty deep. It makes me wonder: have I ever really known or met myself previously? I'll have to think about that.

I know, I know, it's bad form to make fun of stuff written by non-native speakers, and my attempts at writing in a foreign language would be a lot more laughable. But sometimes I can't resist.


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Our Web site features the highest standard of encryption available. With this state-of-the-art security, your personal data is scrambled before it's transmitted through the Internet.

--flyer from MBNA, received 11 February 2006

I suppose that this isn't exactly a malaprop, because technically the statement is true--your data is "scrambled" when it's encrypted. But the connotations I have for "scrambled" make this amusing to me.

On the other hand, I suppose the term "scrambled" is in common use for this kind of thing in some contexts. Spies in movies use "scramblers" to talk secretly on the phone, for example. So maybe there's nothing really wrong with this.

Still, I was amused by it.


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Flemish artists used mixed tempura and oil painting during the 1400s[....]

--Oil paint entry in Wikipedia, until 16 January 2006

I corrected this in the entry, of course, but I was amused enough by it to preserve it here for posterity. I picture old Flemish artists frying up some vegetables and prawns and then dipping them in paint and using them as brushes.

(The Wikipedia article on "tempura" suggests that it's possible the word indirectly derives from "tempera." No idea how plausible that is. But it does remind me of one of my favorite pun phrases: O tempura! O morays!)

By the way, the Wikipedia articles about paint could benefit greatly from editing and expansion by someone who knows something about art (unlike me). If you're interested, follow that link to the "oil paint" entry, edit as needed, then follow links from that page to other pages and edit those too.

For example, the entry on paint is full of clumsy sentences; the tempera entry contains oddly phrased assertions like "True tempera paintings are quite permanent" (as opposed to the false tempera paintings that are only somewhat permanent?); the entry on gouache is listed as a "stub," meaning it's brief and incomplete (for example, there's no explanation of what "poster paint" is or why it's called that); the entries on decal and decalcomania could use some cleanup; and so on and so on.

judicial and judicious


"Judge Alito has been a judicious judge and my confidence he will be a judicial justice is based on my personal knowledge of the man and my belief his judicial temperament is rooted in his personal character," said Yale law professor Anthony Kronman, who said he was a Democrat.

--"Alito Hearing Over, Vote Set for Next Week," by Liza Porteus, Fox News, Friday, January 13, 2006

I can't tell whether that's a typo, a joke, a misquote, or something else. I'm guessing that Kronman meant to say Alito would be a judicious justice; "judicial justice" is something of a tautology. On the other hand, I can imagine that Kronman said the line as quoted, intending some less-common meaning of "judicial." Such as: "arising from a judgment of God." (MW11, def. 4). Or, more seriously, I can imagine he might have meant something like "suited to the job of judging"--though perhaps "magisterial" would be a better fit in that case.


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The winning streak for this veritable show continues through its fourth year.

--Amazon's editorial review of The West Wing: The Complete Fourth Season DVD

It's so show-like that it's practically a show!

Presumably they mean "venerable."

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