Last Sunday a bunch of us were up at the home farm shooting the breeze in lawn chairs around the fire pit when my father got to telling the one about old RJ up the road who owned a tiny patch of pine trees situated in one corner of a 40-acre square. The remainder of the 40 had been bought up by a big-time crop farmer. At one point the big-time farmer installed a circle irrigator, but he was frustrated by RJ’s pine trees, as they blocked the irrigator from describing a complete orbit. Negotiations ensued, terms were arranged, and in the end RJ sold his pine tree patch for—as he told my father—an “exuberant” price. The smile on RJ’s face was such that Dad has never been quite sure if he chose “exuberant” over “exorbitant” on purpose, but in any case he made the better choice.
This led to a discussion of what I call “appropo malaprops,” in which the wrong word is in fact the far better word. In this our cloud-based age, curated lists of examples are a clickety-tap away, but as we were sitting in a relaxed circle on a country evening while the family children played on swings, we didn’t want to risk diving into the hand-held looking glass with all its mephitic distractions, and instead began rattling off our favorites by memory.
A family favorite involved two volunteer firefighters engaging in an extramarital situation. When they used the local fire hall for an assignation and someone found out, the small-town fire chief claimed this, “just exasperated the situation,” and he was not wrong.
Children are a font of words beautifully misused, including the child who, hoisting a satchel of fruit, told me, “This bag is plump full!” and another, watching a bus pull away from the curb of a human-jammed airport terminal with a load of weary rental car customers aboard, informed me, “That’s an airport shuffle.” She was right on and would agree with me that half the people on that bus were suffering what an overtired emailer once spelled as “sleep depravation,” just one letter off and all the better for it.
That last example reminds me that not all appropo malaprops are funny, nor are they spoken — some are the result of typos and can be downright poetic. I am thinking here of the time I read a manuscript in which the following beautiful error slipped through: “The land, which is toiled by a local farmer…” If only I could make mistakes of that quality on a regular basis.
I once received an email from someone explaining there would be a delay in a project because one of the main players was “in the final throngs of divorce.” So sad, so true, and I assume some of the throng were billing by the hour.
Finally, there was the speaking event where a woman placed one of my books on the table before me, opened it to the title page, and said, “Can you sign this for a friend of mine? She’s an expiring writer.”
I scribbled as fast as I could.