Susie Dent’s Top 10s: Ten malaphors

Malaphors – a blend of malapropisms and metaphors. Whether you like them, dislike them, or still aren’t entirely sure what they are, this week’s top ten from Susie Dent is just what you need.

susie dent's top tens

As recent events have proved all too clearly, language can become a battleground that reinforces division and distrust. And so it’s worth reminding ourselves of its capacity for joy as well as hate, and of its endless potential for comedy, not least when we or others get our words a little bit wrong.

 Many of us will have heard of the term ‘eggcorn’, for example: a slip of the ear or tongue that very often goes on to replace the original version of the phrase. These are phrases such as ‘nip it in the butt’, or ‘going at it hammer and tongs’. I have in my time been called a ‘minefield of information’, though happily not a ‘suppository of wisdom’ – yet. 

Then there is the mixed metaphor, when two very distinct images are put together when they are entirely incompatible. Here the market seems to have been cornered by politicians.  Britain’s Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevan famously pronounced in 1948: ‘I don’t like it. When you open that Pandora’s box, you will find it full of Trojan horses’.

Let’s not forget the malapropism, a term inspired by Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals (1775) who is a mistress of linguistic ineptitude, as when she calls one gentleman “the very pineapple of politeness,” when she of course means ‘pinnacle’.

The latest kid on the block is the ‘malaphor’, an utterance that manages to combine a malapropism and a metaphor by crunching together two separate expressions and producing a new one. The beauty of a malaphor is that it tends to sound entirely plausible, seducing the brain into believing that this is the entirely standard phrase or expression. 

So, in the interests of providing a smile or two amidst the gloom, here are some of my all-time favourite malaphors.

lamb to the slaughter malaphors
A lamb on its way to the slaughter..?

1. It’s not rocket surgery!

Let’s start with one of the best, which subtly mixes up brain surgery and rocket science to produce something far more interesting.

2. Like lemmings to the slaughter

The poor lemming has garnered a reputation for the mindless and slavish following of a leader, often with fatal consequences. The animal features in such expression as ‘like lemmings to the sea’, or ‘like lemmings over a cliff’, referring to self-destruction en masse. But someone, somewhere has introduced a remix version: ‘like lemmings to the slaughter’, in which they have unceremoniously ditched the lamb but still follow each other to certain death. 

3. A bird in the hand is worth two with one stone.

No explanation is necessary for this one, which gives two very old proverbs an unusual update.

nail on the nose malaphors
Hitting the nail on the..?

4. You hit the nail on the nose

Clearly a far more painful alternative.

5. Strike while you’re ahead

Why quit when we can strike out not just when the iron is hot, but when we’re already leading the pack?

Read More: Susie Dent’s Top Tens: 10 ‘Americanisms’ that aren’t actually American

6. I was out like a log

There’s something attractive about this malaphor: after all, ‘sleeping like a log’ already makes for a curious mental image. The light can wait.

7. That fan is going to hit the roof

‘When the shit hits the fan’ originated in US military slang in the 1940s. If you’re in need of a sanitised version, look no further than fans flying skywards.

pigs fly malaphors picryl
This pig isn’t freezing over, but he is… (Image credit: Picryl)

8. Until the pigs freeze over

Whether or not hell ever freezes over, you might argue that pigs are more likely to freeze than fly, so who are we to argue? 

9. You can’t teach a leopard new spots

A malaphor that rather beautifully combines the idea of teaching an old dog new tricks and the 16th-century proverb ‘a leopard can’t change its spots’. Let’s not even begin to bring grandmothers sucking eggs into the equation.

There are hundreds more possibilities in the malaphor game. Love them or not, now we’ve opened that can of worms, we must lie in it.

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