Dear Imprudence: Oh No, It’s the Pronunciation Police!
The following appeared in Slate’s “Dear Prudence” advice column chat-room supplement fairly recently:
Chicago: We have a close friend who is prone to embarrassing malapropisms that surpass even the best Norm Crosby bit. These are not innocent and simple mispronunciations—but ugly mangling of words including misuse and lack of understanding of the meaning of some words. I know that many words have multiple pronunciations and meanings, but this is beyond brutal. Some of them are funny, some are faux pas that make you wince and want to help. We used to try to help by repeating the word correctly in conversation after she had mangled it. No success. We have tried the direct approach—like a teacher—but this was rebuffed. We never did any of this in public but in private, away from others. And we picked our spots—only bringing up the worst cases. But she takes offense and continues mispronouncing words and inserting them in conversation where they don’t belong. Recently, my wife used the word adept, and now our friend mispronounces it and uses it like apt. It is like she has her own language. My wife has stopped trying to correct her. Her husband is no help and does the same thing on a smaller scale. I refuse to throw in the towel as I can’t understand why anyone would not want to expand their vocabulary—correctly. I would want to know if I was saying tenor for tenure and FOIL-AGE for any of the many accepted versions of foliage. We are 57 and of sound mind. She does not have a hearing problem.
There are so many problems here, I don’t even know where to begin. This “friend” is SO EMBARRASSING, nor does she take kindly to being corrected by her “well-meaning” pals who think her misuse of language is just terrible! Horrors!
One part that strikes me as uniquely troubling is this: “We are 57 and sound of mind.” Yes, because being 57 is supposed to automatically mean that one becomes not sound-of-mind? Soundness of mind, additionally, is one of those things where the meaning changes depending upon whom you talk to. Combined with the letter-writer’s utterly condescending attitude toward his “friend,” this sounds suspiciously like a trope that has been leveled for ages at PWDs, mostly by the temporarily abled who are so concerned about their welfare: If you’d just take my advice/listen to me/let me HELP you, you would get better. As has been proven time and time again, this is rarely true.
Now let’s look at the columnist’s response:
Emily Yoffe: Your friend probably has some sort of language processing disorder (there was speculation that the George Bush’s malapropisms, “I know you want to put food on your family,” etc., might have come from such a disorder), and all the schoolmarmish corrections in the world won’t “cure” her. It’s good you mention Norm Crosby, because he built an entire career on amusingly mangling language. I don’t know why you consider being with your friend “brutal.” It sounds as if you usually understand what she means, and when you don’t, you can ask for more context. Trying to keep a straight face seems like the biggest problem you face in socializing with her. So just be compassionate and let it go, and when you get in the car, you can laugh at her best neologisms.
Shockingly, I don’t totally hate this advice, despite Yoffe’s ill-fated attempts at snark/humor. She brings up an excellent point: If these “well-meaning” grammar cops think that being around this person (whom they call a friend) is such a trial, then why would they continue to be around this individual? To bolster their own sense of superiority? To show off their class privilege to this “friend” in the most ridiculous way possible? I have some issues with the “just laugh at her when she’s not around” suggestion, which seems almost needlessly rude–laughing at someone’s disability, furthermore, (which they often cannot control) is generally considered impolite for a reason.
But what the hell do I know? I’m just a person with several disabilities; if I’m lucky, perhaps a well-meaning TAB is writing a hand-wringing, oh-so-concerned letter to an advice columnist about me right this very second.