There are too many fascinating words in English that don’t get used very often. Our vocabulary tends to be limited to the scope of our daily lives, and the mundane exchanges of forgettable pleasantry that pass for typical conversation. If the Inuit have a hundred different words for snow, English has a billion permutations of how to talk about snow in a workplace elevator. Still, our language is full of tricks and tropes that allow us to use these same old words in exciting new ways. You’ve probably used many of these without realizing what you were doing (or writing) at the time. But much as a famous technology company would assure you that “there’s an app for that,” in English, there’s a word for that as well. These are some of my favourites, and I hope they shall find greater use in the future:
- Portmanteau – From French for “carry your coat,” this is a word that originates as the combination of two separate words in order to describe something new, like how combining smoke and fog gives you smog. Some popular examples include breathalyzer, jazzercise, soundscape, televangelist, bromance, and, regrettably, bootylicious.
- Mondegreen – Refer to my previous post on misheard lyrics – this is the term for those. It was coined by writer Sylvia Wright in an essay in Harper’s Magazine in 1954, referring to a 17th Century poem called “The Bonny Earl O’Moray,” in which a stanza reads: “They hae slain the Earl O’Moray, and laid him on the green.” Wright heard the latter phrase as “And Lady Mondegreen.” The key to a true mondegreen, according to Wright, is that the misinterpretation must improve upon the original; hence, my father’s (in)famous misreading of Hall & Oates’ “The woman is wild, ooh” as “Poobulasquaooh” probably doesn’t count. (See also: “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”)
- Anacoluthon – Familiar, if not immediately, to any man in trouble with his wife, this is the term for a phrase where the grammar is broken. “It was just a – I didn’t mean to – I’m so sorry.”
- Apophasia – Politicians love this one, for it lets them slag their opponents without seeming like they’re doing so on purpose. This is when you say you’re not going to mention something but end up insinuating it anyway. Ronald Reagan used it to great effect in his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale when he said after being challenged that he was too old to be President, “I am not going to make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Or “You know, it’s not true, all that stuff they say about Phil being a lying, sleazy, unprincipled, back-stabbing, philanderous, greedy old opportunistic horse thief.”
- Mumpsimus – Anyone who insists on saying “nucular” is guilty of this grammatical offense – the term for a habit adhered to obstinately, no matter how many times evidence shows it to be in error. It comes from a story about a monk who mispronounced part of the Latin Eucharist and refused to change it to the correct version because he’d been doing it his own way for forty years.
- Paraprosdokian – I just learned this one yesterday and I’ve saved the best for last. This is where the second part of a sentence unexpectedly causes you to reinterpret the first part. You could almost call it the Groucho Marx, as he was a master of it: “I’ve had a perfectly lovely evening – unfortunately, this wasn’t it.” Or the other famous quote, usually interpreted to be said by or about Winston Churchill depending on where you read it: “There, but for the grace of God, goes God.”
There you have it – six fun terms to expand your vocabulary – not that they’re likely to help when you’re stuck in that elevator on a snowy day. Perhaps “anacoluthon” might spring to mind the next time you find yourself struggling for words in a difficult situation. You could even try to relax the tension of the moment by pointing it out to your sparring partner. I disavow myself of all legal responsibility therefor should you then get summarily punched in the face.
P.S. Thanks to the Great Encyclopedia of Earthly Knowledge for its customary assistance.