How NOT to Study GRE Vocabulary: Malapropisms

mask01Like many blogs, It’s Not GREek! regularly receives many spam comments such as this gem:

“There is a great deal of playing that goes into place for sewer driving. If you fail to take some action, any strain on your sewer line may lead to tantamount problems. You’ll be able to tell when the auger contacts the material causing the clog.”

Like many other spam comments, this one is rife with errors (although I have seen far worse). In particular, I would like to draw your attention to the use of the word “tantamount” in the following sentence:

“If you fail to take some action, any strain on your sewer line may lead to tantamount problems.”

While less common than the “generic praise and flattery” strategy (i.e. – “This post is so helpful! Thank you so much!!!”), the “vocabulary showoff”strategy remains popular with spammers, presumably because they believe that posts featuring sequipedalians will be perceived as educated, legitimate comments, no matter how nonsensical or unrelated to the blog post at hand. Unfortunately, these polysyllables are often used incorrectly.

According to dictionary.com, the word “tantamount” can be defined as “equivalent, as in value, force, effect, or signification.” Clearly, this is not how the word is used here. The author of the above comment clearly thought that the word “tantamount” was an intensifier of some sort rather than an expression of equivalence. In the above sentence, we can infer that “tantamount problems” was supposed to be a fancier way of saying very big/bad/important problems.

One possible explanation for this confusion would be that the author mistook the word “tantamount” for the word “paramount,” which according to dictionary.com means “chief in importance or impact; supreme; preeminent.” This kind of error is known as a malapropism.

401px-Richard_Brinsley_Sheridan_1751_-_1816In 1775, Richard Brinsley Sheridan was newly married, living it up in the fashionable English resort of Bath, and short on cash. As something of a well-connected dandy and wit, he decided that the way to save himself from financial embarrassment was…to write a play. Thus, his comedy The Rivals and his most famous character, Mrs. Malaprop, were born. In the play, Mrs. Malaprop fulfills the stock roll of the dull, fun-killing chaperone for a young, beautiful, head-strong heiress. What makes her stand out from a sea of similar characters in English literature is her gag: she has a bad habit of confusing similar sounding words, often to exquisite comic effect. For instance consider the following line from the play:

“Sure, if I reprehend any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!”

Probably, she meant to say something like this:

“If I apprehend anything in this world, it is the use of my vernacular tongue, and a nice arrangement of epithets.”

A critical caricature by James Gillray of Sheridan as a bottle of old sherry.

A critical caricature by James Gillray of Sheridan as a bottle of old sherry.

Hilarious. Anyway, after a disastrous premier Sheridan made a few tweaks to the play and it went on to become so popular that this kind of error has been forever hence known as a “malapropism.” Mrs. Malaprop’s name is after all derived from the French “mal à propos” meaning poorly placed or, in a more general sense, inappropriate. Thus, Mrs. Malaprop is literally “Mrs. Inappropriate.”

Beware of these kinds of errors when studying vocabulary or when writing essays. Just because you’ve heard a word before doesn’t mean you actually know it. Always make sure to look up the definitions of even familiar sounding words, because the word you are familiar with may only sound like the one you happen to be studying at the moment.

As a final note, “paramount,” while more accurate than tantamount, is still somewhat problematic in the context of the original sentence:

“If you fail to take some action, any strain on your sewer line may lead to paramount problems.”

“Paramount,” you see, tends to have a positive connotation, since its meanings include not only “chief in importance or impact” but also “supreme,” “preeminent,” or even “above others in rank or authority; superior in power or jurisdiction.” Thus, it would be unidiomatic to describe “problems” as “paramount,” since problems are by definition bad. Finding the solution to a problem might be paramount, but the problem itself is never really described that way. Consider the following correct example sentence:

“When preparing for the GRE, studying vocabulary is paramount, because failing to do so is tantamount to kissing a good verbal score goodbye.”

And that, my friends, is the bottom line. Happy studying!

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