Saying it wrong on purpose

My latest column in the Malaysia Star is about words we say wrong on purpose. Update: There’s a lively conversation on this topic now underway at Jason Kottke’s blog.

There are, technically speaking, two Internets. One—Internet2—is used privately by universities, scientists, corporations, and the US government agencies.

The other, which we might call the plain vanilla Internet (meaning the most basic kind), is the one nearly everyone else in the world uses. It’s what most of us mean when we say “the Internet.”

However, a lot of people are now calling the regular Internet the Internets, plural, with an ‘s’ at the end. It takes only a little research to see that they are mimicking President George W. Bush who is on record as misspeaking this way. He said “Internets” instead of “Internet” in 2000 and again in 2004.

As a result, “Internets” is now a heavily entrenched word, a plural used where a singular is usual.

But why do some people say it that way?

For one thing, it pokes fun at the president, who is known for his disfluency (his inability to speak well).

It’s also meant to be slightly ironic and a bit self-deprecating. You can make fun of yourself by saying it that way.

People incorrectly say words on purpose all the time. My wife says aminal instead of “animal” and maters instead of “tomatoes.”

I sometimes say “muscles” so that the ‘c’ has a ‘k’ sound (the same way the cartoon character Popeye says it), computor instead of “computer” (after Ned Beatty’s exaggerated pronunciation of “Mr Luthor” in the Superman movies), and I occasionally say benimber instead of “remember” because it was something my cousin Paul said more than 20 years ago.

My wife and I both sometimes say chimbly instead of “chimney,” fambly instead of “family,” and liberry instead of “library.” Like maters, these are common enough pronunciations that many Americans wouldn’t notice we were saying them any differently from anyone else.

It’s not that my wife and I, or anyone who says Internets, are maroons (a humorous way of intentionally misrendering “moron”).

My wife is a linguist, after all, and I am a lexicographer (that is, a dictionary compiler and editor), and we both know how to speak in very correct formal English or even just up-to-snuff (meaning acceptable and passable) day-to-day English. We both know how to pronounce “library”; it just amuses us, sometimes, to say it another way.

People speak that way because saying a word wrong on purpose is a form of wordplay. It adds variety, colour, and whimsy to our speech. It’s a common characteristic of slang, which is partly built upon fooling around.

Perzackly and prezactly, for example, are wildly ridiculous pronunciations of the adverb “exactly.” The Oxford English Dictionary rightly marks them as being largely American and further indicates that they are representations of rural or southern speech.

That’s dictionary-writer’s talk, which means people spell the word to imitate the stereotypes of uneducated or unsophisticated folks. They’re trying to be funny or to make fun of someone, but you’ll find that they’re often purposely making fun of themselves, too.

A more common intentional misspeaking is beeswax which is used in the expression “mind your own beeswax!” which means “mind your own business!” It’s what you say when someone is trying to find out your secrets.

In this case, “beeswax,” which is a real word meaning the stuff with which bees make their honeycombs, is a malapropism. A malapropism is when you substitute a word with a similar-sounding one, although it’s usually accidental.

Many Americans also say coinkydink instead of coincidence. It’s sometimes spelled kwinkydink or kawinkydink and is almost always used in a light-hearted or goofy way. It refers to when two or more things happen in the same way, at the same time, at the same place, or to the same people in a way that is surprising. Although you know they’re not related, they seem to be. Coinkydinks are interesting but unimportant.

There are still more: one fell swoop, an idiom that means “an action that happens fast and all at once,” is often rendered as in one swell foop. That’s a spoonerism, where the first sounds of several words are swapped around to create a nonsensical expression.

Mercy buckets is a rendering of the French merci beaucoup, meaning “thank you very much.” People who say this usually know perfectly well that the French is not pronounced that way. They’re just practising a fake and exaggerated ignorance.

Ossifer is a created by metathesis from “officer,” meaning a police officer. Metathesis is when letters inside a word are swapped around, in this case in the way that a drunk person might do.

This word often accompanies long joke sayings in which many of the words are jumbled, such as, “Ossifer, I swear to drunk I’m not God”—the kind of thing you might say to a cop if you were likkered up (inebriated) and couldn’t speak normally.

Anyhoo (anyhow), there are many more of these, but I’ll save them for another time.

Posted April 2, 2008

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