The other day I heard an NPR announcer, or maybe a guest, use the phrase “…this changes the calculus of the situation,“ speaking of some development or another in Libya, I think. You can tell I wasn’t listening too closely to the radio at that point. But the phrase struck me as a tad odd to my ear; it just didn’t sound quite right to me. I realized that I wasn’t sure that “calculus” was the most appropriate word in that commonly-used expression of change. Didn’t people more commonly say “this changes the numbers, or this changes the equation?” I decided maybe, maybe not. Perhaps it was just me. “Calculus” didn’t strike me as wrong necessarily, just not the most “right” to my ears and brain at that moment.
That got me thinking about the preciseness of language, a subject AVI blogs on frequently, and knows far more than I on this topic. But I was contemplating how the written language of common communications has changed, especially as the result of e-mail abbreviations and emoticons, texting shorthands, and certainly 140 character tweets. Maybe our verbal language will catch up. What is the oral version of a Tweet? If it’s a grunt, then men have been ahead in this game for some time now. But I digress.
So the “calculus” example really got me thinking about one of my favorite specialties in the world of humor – malapropisms, words used incorrectly or “inappropriately,” from the French “ill-suited.” I knew what the NPR speaker meant, even if the word choice didn’t quite sound 100% correct, or the most appropriate choice to me. I got the intent. Many comedians have put this verbal device to good use from time to time of course. I think of the late British actress Molly Sugden who played Mrs. Betty Slocombe on the long-running TV series about department store employees, Are You Being Served? (1972-85). Sugden’s character could be opinionated, hot-headed, and a bit of a blue-collar underneath her department store uniform. When she wanted to express how adamant she felt about a topic or position, she would spout enthusiastically, “…and I am unanimous in that!”
But of course the U.S. comedian that made a career out of malapropisms was (or rather is) Norm Crosby. His heyday was in the 1970s and 80s when he regularly appeared on late night TV shows and often as one on the roasters on the old Dean Martin Celebrity Roast events. Crosby also did a fair number of commercials since his jovial, somewhat bumbling verbal style translated well for feel-good TV ads. He was in a number of Natural Light beer commercials for Anheuser Busch, one alongside Mickey Mantle. This commercial for Red Lobster restaurants reflects an excellent use of his talents; a touch of humor, but not overdone where you’d want to groan, “stop, too corny.”
So who cares whether language is precise or not? Our evolving brains will filter through the meanings and find the “appropriate” ones.