Saturday, February 11, 2006

Self-defecating Humor

I’m a little strange. This should come as no surprise to many of you denizens of the Realm. But one of my quirks is analyzing humor. It isn’t enough to me that something is funny; I want to understand why it is funny.

Through this analysis, I have found that at least to me the malaprop, when discovered in the wild, is one of the more consistently funny forms of humor.

What is a malaprop? A malaprop derives its name from Mrs. Malaprop, a dimwitted character from Richard Sheridan’s comedy, The Rivals and describes an instance where the speaker through ignorance or a slip of tongue substitutes a similar-sounding word for the one intended. Fun with has a further description and some examples on their page. Sports figures and politicians are notorious for malaprops, but hearing one live is even better.

The title of this post is an example of a malaprop that a coworker, an older gentleman nearing retirement, used to explain why he spoke ill of himself in conversation. After regaining my composure, I politely suggested that perhaps that wasn’t quite what he had meant to say.

On another occasion, I had a boss, who was quite notorious for mixing metaphors and cliché’s anyway (he regularly put his ear and many other body parts, save his nose, to the grindstone) instruct during a meeting that it would be nearly impossible for anyone to reach him, as he would be incognito… all day.

I also had another friend explain the layout of his house to me as having a large "a grape" room rather than a den and living room combination. It was funny to me, but because he had only ever heard someone speak of having a great room in their home and had never seen it written, he didn’t understand why.

I know humor is subjunctive, and I hope if you don’t find my altitude about people who occasionally misspeak to be self-impotent and off-putting that you’ll share your own detestable morsels with me. But if you do find me a cat, I guess we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.


Rich said...

Personally, I think the mix-up between flatulence and flagellate is quite humorous.

Although, I must admit, when someone rips mammoth flatulence, if you're in the headwind, you may well feel like you've been flagellated (and not be altogether pleased, either).

Scot said...

You didn't address why this is funny. So, I'll take a stab at it, though maybe this is stating the obvious. I think the malaprop is part of a broader spectrum of humor where events take a departure from the expected or ordinary. Our minds often anticipate sequences of events and when something disturbs the expected sequence, it is humorous because it is a departure from the monogamy of everyday life. This is why to some (present company obviously excluded) bathroom humor is funny. That type of talk is not typical of proper conversation. Someone tripping or falling can be funny because of its unexpected nature. Dry wit is an appreciated commodity because the dryness of one's speech exaggerates the unexpected humorous content. This also explains why you need to know when it is time to stop. Something that was funny can becoming irritating if overdone because it is no longer unexpected. Bathroom humor or a slip of gas may be funny once, but quickly loses its humor value.
And yes, I did intentionally drop one malaprop in this commentary. If you thought it was funny, it was because it was fueled by the sense that this was only a serious discussion on humor, thus posing an unexpected socially-questionable behavior by the slip of the tongue/keyboard. It may have even become funnier by not acknowledging or overusing the humor which increases the out-of-the-ordinary quality. A "straight face" used by so many comedians achieves the same effect.

P&S said...

Thanks for correcting my overbite.

I'd add that I believe that some of the humor value associated with the malaprop derives from the irony of the speaker trying to sound more intelligent or sophisticated than he/she really is.

And it's barely possible that this factor is why I found the malaprop in your comment above so amorous.

BTW, it never stops being funny when I'm the one flagellating. Of course, as many realize, I've never known when to stop.

DugALug said...

Isn't malaprop from Latin:

mal - bad
a - from
prop - words

Not important but I think this is where Sheridan got the name.

I like Scot's idea about why, but there is one additional thing that adds to the humor: English. Yes, English, and all of its silly rules and exceptions. Some languages cater themselves to humor. Yiddish, Tivrit (Hebrew), English, and German all seem to open the door for wordplay.

One requirement is a language that borrows a lot of words from other languages. Part of this gets into what is lost in translation.

I think the biggest factor is the ironic elemment. When the mis-word is used, the extent of how diametricly oposed the word is the inteded meaning is directly proportional to how really funny it was.


DugALug said...


I guess English is a second or third language for me. Let's try this last paragraph again:

I think the biggest factor is the ironic elemment. When the mis-word is used, the extent of how diametricly oposed the word is to the inteded meaning is directly proportional to how really funny it was.

Harry said...

Archie Bunker has got to be King of the meloncrops. I have a terrible memory so you will have to watch an episode or two of All in the Family for some examples, or not. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t look in his mouth.

codepoke said...

My son has let a couple fly of late.

codepoke said...

Someone at work the other day was saying something she thought others might disagree with, so she wanted us to let her know if she was "all wet behind the ears."

That's a little better than the "mute points" that get made around here a lot.