Mrs. Malaprop sails onto the stage in Act One, her spinnaker flying madly. At once she assails her niece, the lissome Lydia Languish, who has fallen for an apparently impecunious sailor. Lydia must promise to forget this fellow, Mrs. M. commands: "... illiterate him, I say, from your memory." Moreover, she warns, "Don't attempt to extirpate yourself from the matter; you know I have proof controvertible of it!" As The Rivals romps along, the dear dowager remarks that few gentlemen "know how to value the ineffectual qualities in a woman!" Lydia's affair has given Mrs. Malaprop the "hydrostatics." She is astonished at the girl's "insurance." Indeed, her niece is "as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile."
Richard Sheridan's comedy is not widely staged today, but Mrs. Malaprop lives on. Her giddy ghost sits on a filing cabinet in my office, where she presides over a thousand exhibits of howlers, boners, gaffes, and myriad felonies and misdemeanors committed upon the English language. The file folders run from "Allusions" to "Wrong Words," but none is fatter than the one marked "M" for Malaprop.
Here is the sort of thing her blessed shade inspires. In its newsletter, a luxury cruise line ran a fancy promotion for a cruise through the Panama Canal. The big attraction? Passengers could stand by the rail and watch their ship "lifted by a series of ingenuous locks." Now, it may be said that ingenious locks turned into ingenuous locks only by typographical error, but the explanation is unpersuasive. At the level of the five-star cruise line, ten copy editors pore over every word. Some benignly evil force was at work.
Strange things happen. In 1994 Retiree News reported the glum possibility that the naval hospital in Charleston, South Carolina, might be closed. This was "according to rumors emulating from the Pentagon." The AAA Motorist carried a feature on skiing: "The sheer volume of skiable terrain in the Northwest makes it a venerable skiers' paradise." In a story about the censorship of speakers, the Associated Press observed that in 1972 Robert E. Lee couldn't have qualified to speak at the University of North Carolina because "Lee abdicated the overthrow of the U.S. Government."
How do these things happen? It is not because the writers were reaching out for a few five-dollar words. There's nothing highfalutin about "ingenious," "emanating," "veritable" and "advocated." No, I am prepared to argue that the spirit of Mrs. Malaprop is to blame--she who confessed that "my affluence over my niece is very small."
The old girl is everywhere. Remember the …