Or Mrs Malaprop and her Rivals

Beatrice Stubbs recently received a review which bordered on the rather cross.

JJ Marsh is fond of using idioms and phrases from the English language and all of them are misquoted. Now I put this down to a possible character foible of Beatrice Stubbs and not a whim of the author to change English. If is the latter, I find it very annoying. The original phrases quoted are dated back, in some cases, to Shakespeare and who is JJ Marsh to misquote him? Examples are ‘At the drop a cat’ instead of a hat. ‘A wild goat chase’ instead of goose chase. And so on and so forth. … Leave our idioms and phrases alone, Ms Marsh.

The reviewer is not the first to judge Beatrice Stubbs as mishandling the English language. Some shake their heads and say of the author, “She’s been out of Britain too long.” Or “you need to get yourself a decent editor”. Or “Beatrice should be smarter than that”.

Allow me introduce you to Mrs Malaprop, from Sheridan’s 1775 Restoration comedy, The Rivals.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

“He is the very pine-apple of politeness!”

“…promise to forget this fellow – to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.”

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

The delightful Mrs Malaprop now lends her name to all kinds of mis-speakery, some even attributed to political figures. I will mention no names.

“Create a little dysentery among the ranks.”

“Alice said she couldn’t eat crabs or any other crushed Asians.”

“One cannot underestimate the importance of bondage between a mother and her child.”

One of the defining features of Beatrice Stubbs is her Bea-lines. I wrote once before about the contemporary version, also known as Eggcorns. I’m hugely fond of them and they form an essential part of her character. Some readers even write to me suggesting Bea-lines of their own, which is such a delight.

“Just don’t read him astray.”

“You’re worth your weight in coal.”

“Seems we got out of bed on the wrong foot.”

Should writers approach language as an untouchable set of rules, regarding idioms and phrases as sacrosanct? For me, the fabulous set of tools we are granted as English speakers is a joy and a playground. Our literature and conversation would be poorer without the creativity and inventiveness of those who stretch its elasticity.

Writers appreciate the value of playing with words, because they know their audiences read more into their usage than mere meanings. Mrs Malaprop uses long words wrongly, because Sheridan wanted his audience to understand that she is a snob, and not as smart as she thinks she is.

Beatrice reinvents her expressions because … well, I’ll leave that up to the reader to decide.

Photo by Matt Riches on Unsplash

Shakespeare created kings and clowns, rustics and romantics on the page with nothing more than the way his characters spoke. He invented words we still use today: bedazzle, new-fangled, half-blooded, arch villain and puppydog. He made fun of his characters with lines such as these:

Dogberry: “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons” (Much Ado About Nothing)

Let’s leave the last word to Oscar Wilde, one of the most playful wordsmiths I know.

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.