In a Word ... Malapropism

One of the great manglers of the King’s English is former taoiseach Bertie Ahern

Words. You just have to love how some people use them. Or misuse them. Back in the day I knew a mischievous woman who delighted in saying “pacifically” when she meant “specifically.” It caused her great delight. “Pacific”, suggesting the largest ocean, opposite of anything as narrow as “specific”.

At least that is what I thought until recently when I discovered what “pacifically” actually means: “in a peaceful way or a way that helps to cause peace.” It gave as examples: “I spoke very pacifically” or “Ignore her,” said Tim. “pacifically.”

Bless my sweet soul but they sounds so wan when compared to the conjured word of my creative friend. I prefer her “pacifically”.

Another friend is prone to describing dull things as “a damp squid”. I have nothing against squids. They’re ugly and all those tentacles, but in their own place far away from me, they’re fine. I have not yet dared to dent my friend’s tender ego by telling him the phrase is “..a damp squib.” Squib being a firework that won’t go off because it is ... well, damp!


I also prefer his “squid” to that “squib”. “Squid” conjures up all sorts of lively images, which may indeed suggest an opposite meaning to the phrase. But you can’t have everything.

One of the great manglers of the King’s English has had to be former taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Though it was the Queen’s English he mangled then. As far as can be determined, this was not politically inspired grandiloquence (love that word) by one of our more republican taoisigh.

He once famously advised Dáil colleagues “don’t upset the apple tart.” It was an update of the phrase “don’t upset the cart”, used since Roman times to mean “don’t spoil everything.” Okay, the Bertie modernisation may have escaped most people, but – hey – everyone understood. Isn’t that what matters?

Similarly with his 2003 reference to the EU’s Middle East peace plan as a “road crash” when he meant “roadmap”. However, my favourite example of Bertiespeak, by a mile, was his frustrated 2006 warning that it didn’t help for people “to start throwing white elephants and red herring at each other.” Mother a’ God! Only Bertie could mix surf and turf like that!

Malapropism, for misapplying words through ambition to use fine language. From Mrs Malaprop, a character in 18th century play The Rivals.

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times