“You can nudge a frog to water but you can’t make it sink” is one of the many adages that some folks blithely deliver without any awareness that it is dead wrong in its specifics yet generally captures the intent of the original, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”

Such homespun wisdom is an example of malapropism. Generally malapropisms (“mal a propos,” or French for inappropriate) are phrases or words that are misused and unintentionally funny. Examples include “Remember Pearl Island” or “polo bears,” but may also be lengthier. An example is Rick Perry, former Texas governor and Trump energy secretary, who once referred to our 50 states as “lavatories of innovation and democracy.” (Hear the flush.) No compelling reason to be anal here, but another example, this used in an academic journal, refers to a particular collection of books as a “suppository of knowledge.”  Warning: Repeating such gaffes often enough, a person could develop hemorrhoids.

Two malaprops are frequently confused. The notion that a prior issue has been satisfactorily resolved between disputants is “water under the bridge” or “water over the dam,” though it is not uncommon to hear “that’s water over the bridge” or “that’s water under the dam.”  Damn confusing, that water.

Similarly, Ben Franklin’s observation that “when the well is dry, we learn the worth of water” is sometimes twisted to “the well is dry, so I got nothing to give you.”  And I wonder if Nathan Hale would have despaired or giggled upon hearing “I have but one life to lose for my county.” (It is “give,” not “lose,” and “country,” not “county.”)

George W. Bush often had linguists in an uproar. “I think we agree, the past is over” or “Teach a child to read and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test” are two examples of so many Bush gaffes that experts created the “Bushism” as a variant of malapropism. Former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley once referred to “Alcoholics Unanimous,” and Joe Biden, while campaigning for vice president in 2008, called his future boss “Barack America.” President Donald Trump railed against “unpresidented” action by the “Democrat Party” (Democratic Party). And who can forget Sarah Palin, the bumbling former governor of Alaska, lamenting that America too often “sits on its thumbs” (and twiddles its hands, no doubt)?

These examples were unintentionally funny. Probably, I say, probably, Yankee great Yogi Berra was trying to be funny (and succeeded) in his verbal gymnastics.  “I really didn’t say everything I said” could have been uttered by one of our politicians, but Berra beat them to the punch. Another Berra saying, though dated because it references pre-COVID life, is “Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.” Some refer to these Yogi-isms, as with Bush, as a variant of the malaprop. “Déjâ vu all over again.”

Years ago, when we were living on the edge of rural Virginia and I was negotiating with a car salesman, he got clearly frustrated with my unyielding stand against paying more than what I told him I could afford and he said, half jokingly but clearly with pique, “You’re tighter than a bull’s ass at fly time.” That metaphor, I decided then, was so colorful and funny, and on target, that I met him in the middle of the price range he had quoted. The salesman, unmoved by my gesture, simply uttered, “Too late. That turkey is out of the barn.” I responded, “Do you mean ‘horse’?” And he said, “Nope, my family couldn’t afford horses because of people like you.”


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