'I'm a sea fish, a big fat sea fish' and other funny malapropisms
In Mr. Dorn's eighth-grade class at Meadow Park Junior High School, I sat at the very back of the room directly in front of Kirk Graves.
One morning when Mr. Dorn leaves us for a few minutes, Kirk suddenly starts to sing and simultaneously pound his palms onto his desktop.
"I'm a sea fish, a big fat sea fish."
Kirk, with obvious self-delight, repeats this lyric again and again with increasing gusto and gratification.
Right away, I realize he's singing to the same beat and cadence as the Dave Clark Five's current hit "Bits and Pieces" that repeats the line "I'm in pieces, bits and pieces."
I turn around and ask Kirk what the heck that is.
He gives me this incredulous stare. "You know," he says, "that Dave Clark Five song: 'Big Fat Sea Fish'."
Inside that singular moment I realize that even cool, popular, smart kids can be total dummies.
And, of course, we mustn't forget that the Dave Clark Five were English blokes from the other side of the pond who had their homeland accents. But let's not cut Kirk too much slack. "I'm a sea fish, a big fat sea fish"? C'mon, man.
While we're on the subject of bollixing British rock-'n'-roll tunes, there's more from my past.
During my high school years, I had the true pleasure of being the lead singer in a rock-'n'-roll band. This was light years before the Internet. If I wanted to learn complete song lyrics, I usually bought the record, brought it home and picked up that phonograph needle again and again as I slowly but surely wrote down all the words.
This task wasn't easy. Figuring out what specific lyrics were blurting out of that phonograph speaker could prove to be pretty tricky. I always prided myself in successfully translating what could often be fragments of pure mumbo-jumbo to the ear.
But no matter how hard I tried, I could never decipher what Mick Jagger was saying in that first line of "Get Off My Cloud." I'll bet I listened to the opening of that Rolling Stones' record more than 500 times. I even tried slowing the phonograph's speed down. Absolutely no luck.
Sometime long after my heady garage band days, I finally saw those lyrics spelled out in a song book. For the very first time, I learned that Jagger-garbled first line was actually supposed to be: "I live in an apartment on the ninety-ninth floor of my block."
But here's basically what Paul Keller had been mumble-screaming into his microphone: "Iliveonthefarmyouknowtheninetheninethefortyninthblock."
A 'Water Boots' Production
As you probably know, "malaprop" or "malapropism" is the mistaken use of a word or phrase in place of a similar-sounding one, basically mangling the pronunciation of the language. Just like Kirk Graves did to that Dave Clark Five song. The word originated from "Mrs. Malaprop," a character in Richard Sheridan's 1775 play "The Rivals," who frequently misspeaks by using the wrong word which sounds like the correct one, to great comic effect.
I've got other classic examples from my own life and times. I'm sure you do, too. Maybe sharing some of mine will help you remember some of yours.
Growing up in the late 50s and early 60s, there were several Old West-themed programs on television produced by Warner Brothers. ("Cheyenne," "Maverick," and "Sugarfoot" come to mind.) At the very end of these shows after that last credit appeared and the snappy theme song was ending, a stern male, somewhat gravelly, overdub voice would sort of half-whisper: "A Warner Brothers Production."
One of our little neighbor kids thought he was saying: "A Water Boots Production." So, on our street, that's what it became. That's one of the beauties of the malapropism. Once it is born, it often overrules and replaces the original.
Not surprisingly, such malapropisms that we unknowingly adopt as kids can often have embarrassing results when we reach adulthood. I know.
In high school once, who knows why now, but up there in front of my class, I was supposed to write the term "tidal wave" on the board. The only problem was, I grew up thinking that huge wall of water surging out of the ocean was a "title wave."
As soon as I wrote that malapropism in front of all of my classmates and the teacher and God and everyone else, I could hear that first contagious trickle of stifled giggles. Then, before you can say "Stupid Blockhead," those suppressed snickers erupted into a rollicking, full-chorus cacophony of slap-your-knee hysteria.
For my own sanity and self-preservation, I have totally suppressed what happened next.
Sensitive Virgo that I am, I'm sure I considered sprinting directly to the restroom and committing hari-kari.
Unfortunately, my malapropisms would follow me to college, too.
My senior year I managed to qualify for a special senior poetry writing seminar "class." Every Thursday afternoon, I worked one-on-one with professor and award-winning poet, Ralph Salisbury.
Ralph would critique my poems and show me how they might be improved. He was a superior teacher and a great guy.
One day, we're reviewing a new poem that I'd written about my suburban childhood.
One of my lines held the phrase "my grassed-stained pants." Thinking it was a typo, Ralph reaches over and crosses out the "ed" in "grassed."
Perplexed, I explain how this was the word for when you slid in grass and got that green-yellow "grassed" stain on your pants leg.
Perceptive Ralph immediately knew that we'd stumbled into malapropism land. He pauses. Then he looks deep into my eyes and gives me the gift of a wonderfully understanding smile.
"I'm familiar with the term," Ralph — charitably — points out. "The word is 'grass.' It's a noun. And it's being used here as a noun adjunct. It simply cannot be past tense."
Malapropisms can have deep roots. Believe it or not, I start yet again to defend my use of this incorrect word. But — thankfully — that's when my brain finally kicks out of autopilot and the klieg lights of sensibility snap on.
Holy Cow! Of course it isn't "grassed" stain. Even though that's what I'd been saying and thinking probably ever since kindergarten.
Poor Ralph had to set me straight another time with yet another malapropism awakening.
You know that piece of furniture you probably have in your bedroom for storing your socks and underwear and what-have-you, the ubiquitous "chest of drawers"? Well, once again, probably ever since my kindergarten era, I thought — make that knew — that was "chested drawers." Sure, I now know, thanks again to Ralph Salisbury, that makes absolutely no sense. That's the ironic beauty of malapropisms. They never do.
Speaking of kindergarten and hari-kari, back in those days I also carried a malapropism around with me that I bet can be common with the younger set. I thought "suicide" was "sewer-cide." Fortunately, I was set straight on this one while I was still a little guy.
Back in those pre-school days I also truly believed that when someone was "fired" they were called into their boss's office. Their boss would then pull a pistol out of their desk drawer and shoot and kill the person. Hence, they were "fired" from their job.
I remember worrying that this could happen to my dad.
Mercifully, while I was still just a tot, my mom rectified this malapropism-like misrepresentation for me.
To prove my point that we all grow up surrounded by malapropisms, I just now asked my friend Brent Tannehill if he or his family had any. He and his older sister remembered several, including: "soup case" for suitcase, "strawberry peels" for strawberry fields, "soap poppers" for soap operas, and "asparagrass" for asparagus.
His sister also reminded me of a common one: "taken for granite" rather than the correct "taken for granted."
Heartwarming turn of language
I've got another ironic phrase that I'd like to leave you with.
While it's not a malapropism per se, it is a paradoxical use of the language that I think you will appreciate.
After graduating from college, I spent one year in rural southwest Oklahoma as a VISTA Volunteer. One hot summer day, I was on a special "recreation assignment" driving a big International Travelall vehicle full of low-income African-American kindergartners and grade schoolers out to a remote lake where we could all escape the heat and go wading and swimming together.
I will never forget the heartwarming turn of language that a beautiful little first grade school girl suddenly shared with me. Four decades later, whenever appropriate, I still find myself sometimes using her phrase.
As we're driving along that rural, narrow two-lane stretch of road past those sunbaked miles and miles of farm fields somewhere west of Chickasha, she turns my way and asks:
"Paul, can you please raise your window down?"
Longtime mountain resident and former Sandy Post editor Paul Keller pens his "Beneath Wy'east" column once a month here on the Post's editorial pages.