How to avoid malapropisms

“Discretion shall preserve thee, understanding shall keep thee: To deliver thee from the way of the evil one, from the man that speaketh froward things” (KJV, Proverbs 2:11-12). 

When Daniela found a new pink shirt while shopping with her girlfriends during spring break, she didn’t think to ask anyone about the meaning of the single English word emblazoned across the front. After all, the shirt fit well, and her friends all agreed that it was cute, with pretty letters choreographed in glitter. Besides, Daniela was learning a little bit of English, and the word clearly read beach, which as she had learned in class, means playa in her native Spanish. 

Unfortunately, Daniela’s beach was spelled with an “itch,” and nobody who knew better was around to tell her the difference. She was sporting her new shirt one day when I happened to pass by with a couple of other teachers and we quietly broke the news to her. No one can tell me that Hispanics don’t blush! I felt sorry for the poor girl. What a diabolical deal, to unwittingly pay for self-deprecation and advertise for self-exploitation! I hope Daniela learned that it’s not a good idea to take ownership of something you don’t understand, or even what you think you understand, unless you know that you can completely trust the source! 

But Daniela is not the only one to mortify herself with words. It’s easy to make a fool of oneself with a malapropism, where one confuses words with similar sound or spelling. We are especially at risk when we are learning a new language. Another student, Jeff, made the mistake of turning a fellow’s broken huesos (bones) into his broken huevos (eggs), a phrase vulgarly understood as “broken balls” in English. You can imagine the outburst that ensued! I made a similarly awkward mistake in class one day when I read originador (originator) as orinador (one who pees). Fortunately, I caught my mistake almost before the students did, so at least I knew what we were laughing about. Why do our mistakes so often tend toward the crude and the foul? Or are these just the ones we tend to remember?

Some malapropisms, on the other hand, are harder to detect, especially when what you said made sense, though perhaps not quite presenting the idea you actually intended. I had this problem not too long ago when I used the phrase estar pendiente to try to communicate how we should wait on the Lord. In my experience, I was sure I remembered hearing the word used in contexts that communicated this idea, yet later, when I looked it up in the dictionary, I realized that of the phrase’s many definitions, “to pay very close attention to,” is probably the nearest to my intended meaning. Well, I thought, that’s not too far off. We do need to pay closer attention when we wait on the Lord. But then I realized that the definition “to pay close attention” is usually used in the sense of “watching out for” or “taking care of” and then I understood the confused looks that had followed my spiel about “taking care” of God! 

Yet all this talk of not knowing words makes me ask myself, How often do I play the fool in my spiritual experience because of my failure to truly know the Word? How often do I wear God on my sleeve causing people to read an unintended message? Can more study and more practice alone exorcise the pride of my spiritual malapropism? Have I learned enough about God to properly incorporate a working definition into today’s sentence, this year’s paragraph, and my life’s story? For “we spend our years as a tale that is told” (Psalm 90:9). 

I want the divine character to be woven into every plot and subplot of my life! May it be the rising action and the conflict resolution, the climax and conclusion, but most of all, may it be readable for what it is!