November 12, 2010


The other day, my mother, who is 94, insisted I once had a beautiful black dog which she inadvertently allowed to run into the street where it was killed by a passing car. Apparently, she still felt remorse for a loss that was only part true.  Once I did give shelter to a black and white stray while I attempted to locate its owner. The dog was small, however, Chihuahua in size, and it was anything but beautiful. His lips curled about his teeth in what appeared to be a perpetual grimace. But he had a gentle nature and showed remarkable patience as he settled in with my two cats. I might have kept him if I couldn’t have found the owner, but he dashed into the street and was killed when my mother came to visit. She’d remembered that part correctly.

My story isn’t about the dog, however. What interests me is the way my mother had reassembled the facts after all these years. She insisted the dog was large and black and nothing I could say would convince her otherwise; so I gave up. As she stumbles toward 95, I mustn’t insist she remember every event in detail. That her memory still functions reasonably well is a blessing.

The truth is I’m the last person to comment on these tricks of the mind. Recently, I wrote an e-mail to a group of friends about a mutual acquaintance who’d returned from a trip to Iceland. I reported that during her visit she was thrilled to stand at a point on the planet where two Teutonic plates met and she swore she could feel the earth’s energy beneath her feet.

I’d barely pressed the Send button when several replies came rat-a-tating back to me from friends who couldn’t suppress their delight at tripping up a former English teacher. I won’t repeat the jokes as they were many. After all, I’d been caught in a perfect malapropism.  (Mrs. Malaprop is a character in Sheridan’s play, “The Rivals” (1775) who habitually misuses similar sounding words).  My “Teutonic” was meant to be “tectonic.”

I should be contrite about my mistake, but I’m not. As a malapropism, I’d invented a good one and I’m confident Sheridan would have used it if he’d known of it.

But my entry into the list of worthy malapropisms does not rival one I came across years ago when I was obliged to teach biology to 15 year-old girls at a school in the Midlands of England. I’d given a test in which one of the questions was to describe how plants are pollinated.  Here’s the entry from one eager student:

               When the male part of the plant touches the female part of the plant the result is flirtilization.