I BLAME Bertie. Okay, that doesn’t make me unusual nowadays, given the current economic climate. But it’s not the recession that’s on my mind – it’s the mangling of language. And ever since the former Taoiseach gave an interview to The Irish Times recently, it’s been everywhere.
In the course of a discussion with Kathy Sheridan, Bertie Ahern pinpointed the collapse of Lehman Brothers as especially damaging. The Bush administration’s decision not to intervene to prevent that failure would, he suggested, come to be regarded as ‘the biggest mistake’ it ever made. And why? “Because,” Ahern explained, “Lehmans was a world investment bank. They had testicles [sic] everywhere.”
Presumably Bertie meant tentacles, so when I read it initially, I thought he was guilty of a malapropism, which Wikipedia defines as ‘the substitution of a word for a word with a similar sound, in which the resulting phrase makes no sense but often creates a comic effect’.
But a few hours after sending the quote by text message to a (female) friend, my phone beeped with her reply. “That’s still pretty accurate,” she suggested. “I blame testosterone for the global downturn!” So she believed that what Bertie had said was not a malapropism but an eggcorn, because the new phrase ‘makes sense on some level’, as Wikipedia puts it.
But then, Bertie has form in this regard. Our former Prime Minister warned against ‘upsetting the apple tart’ and promised to avoid ‘playing smoke and daggers with the public’ over pay increases. He also thought ‘throwing white elephants and red herring’ was unhelpful. Not to say really, really hard.
Still, such statements aren’t uniquely modern. Shakespeare used malapropisms in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and a number of other plays. Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play ‘The Rivals’ includes a character named Mrs Malaprop, who lives up to her name.
Nor are journalists immune. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve deleted references to Gaelic footballers ‘dissecting the posts’. (To the best of my knowledge, in the 125-year history of the GAA, no player has ever found time to do this in the middle of a game.) Mercifully, the days when friends and relatives of dead people were said to be ‘prostate with grief’ are behind us, perhaps after ‘The Sopranos’ scriptwriters used the line to comic effect.
Saturday has become my malapropism day in recent times. A week on from Bertie’s comment, The Irish Times came up with another cracker. It was in Catríona Crowe’s review of Kevin Kearns’s new book on The Bombing of Dublin’s North Strand in 1941, after which a woman in the Liberties described the victims as having been ‘blown into maternity’.
Then last Saturday, I learned of a local rendition of the ‘Hail Mary’ which featured the phrase “Blessed are the feet of thy womb Jesus”. Listen to that enough (ten times during a decade of the Rosary, perhaps) and you may find yourself convinced that Jesus was a woman.