Please don’t remake Porky’s

January 27, 2013

Robocop, My Fair Lady, Fletch Won, The Birds, Dirty Dancing and Romancing the Stone – I have been trawling the web and these are apparently some of the cinematographic delights that Hollywood has in store for us in the near future. What these particular films have in common is that they are all remakes. And I have to say they do not fill me with joy. This may be because I loved the original – Robocop, The Birds or My Fair Lady. Alternatively, it may be because I couldn’t really see the point of the original films.

I don’t want to alarm anyone, but for the last few years there have been worrying rumours that Hollywood is planning a remake of the teen-sex comedy Porky’s. Released in 1982, this film follows a bunch of high school kids and their attempts at losing their virginity. It did feature the British-Canadian actress Kim Cattrall, who later played Samantha in Sex in the City, in one of her first major roles. Her character, Miss Lynn “Lassie” Honeywell, appears in a sex scene in the boys’ locker room. The nickname, “Lassie” referred to her penchant for howling during intercourse.  Why would anyone want to make this film again? Maybe the first one just wasn’t brilliant enough. I suppose the new version may be a sophisticated comedy about sexual mores in 21st century America, but I won’t be holding my breath I think Roger Ebert’s pithy review eloquently sums up the film:

I see that I have neglected to summarize the plot of Porky’s. And I don’t think I will. I don’t feel like writing one more sentence (which is, to be sure, all it would take).

In 2002 American shock-jock, Howard Stern acquired the remake rights and has been trying to get it onto our screens. Fortunately, the USA is a highly litigious society and the film ran into legal trouble in 2011 when two other production companies stepped forward claiming to own the rights to the franchise.  We can only hope that it never sees the light of day.

An article in The Guardian last year cited a study of American-made releases in 2010 which found that, “60% were neither remakes, sequels or prequels, adaptations from other media, English language copies of foreign titles, 3D retrofits or even retellings of ancient myths.” Of course that means that 40% do fall into the categories above. And it’s these films which get the bulk of both multiplex screens and studio budgets. There is a widespread feeling that there is a creative vacuum. However ultimately the studios produce what we demand. This is the commercial reality. After the demise of the studio system, there was a period of creative explosion in the 1970s. We had the figure of the auteur. Scorsese, Coppola Polanski, Then we had the disaster of Heaven’s Gate, which led to the demise of United Artists. Since then big business has tightened its grip and wrested power back from the directors. What’s more bigger budgets mean that there’s much more at stake. The 1980s saw the rise of producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson with their high concept movies, films that can be easily pitched with a succinctly stated premise. Their works could not really be described as original; Flashdance, Top Gun and Days of Thunder were basically the same movie.

Remakes are not new. In 1903 the director Edwin Porter made The Great Train Robbery, the first movie with a real story, and it was a huge hit. Featuring Alfred C. Abadie, Broncho Billy Anderson and Justus D. Barnes, it had 14 scenes and lasted a grand total of 11 minutes. But just one year later, Siegmund Lubin basically ripped off the movie. In those days you could not actually copyright a movie, so there was no real protection for producers against plagiarism.

Why is Hollywood so addicted to remakes? Fear and money do seem to the primary motivators. One critic had a nice metaphor to explain Hollywood’s attitude. Investing in movies is like a lottery – nobody really knows what is going to be a hit. And just like some lottery players like to choose numbers that have been lucky in the past, so producers cling to the hope that what has been successful for others before, will bring them good luck.

They do not just want to copy films; many of our current crop of directors grew up with television and they seem to be on a mission to recreate their childhoods – Scooby-Doo, The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard and The Brady Bunch are just some of the movies born out of this desire.

Foreign films provide a rich source of material for remakes. I see the commercial logic; a popular remake will bring the film to a far wider audience. But it seems a bit pointless to be remaking films which make perfect sense in the original language, and most of the foreign films that get the Hollywood treatment were pretty good to begin with – that is why they were chosen in the first place. Many countries, like Germany and Spain, have a strong tradition of dubbing. This is not the case in the Anglosphere. We don’t normally have dubbing, foreign films have subtitles, but these tend to be restricted to arthouse movies. The general public are said to be subtitle-phobic. This is one of the reasons why we see so many Hollywood versions of international films. The problem is that they tend to lobotomise the film, sucking out all its distinctiveness and turning it into just another Hollywood vehicle. I enjoy the different ambience. I have no intention of going to see the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. What I liked about the book and the film is that they take you to another world, a different psychological universe. I feel the same about The Killing and Wallender, two examples of Scandi-noir television, which have enjoyed relative success on BBC4   So I urge you to watch more foreign language films, such as the 1998 Japanese horror film Ringu or the 1996 Spanish thriller Thesis.  Such films are almost guaranteed to be  better than any Hollywood remakes. Don’t let those subtitles put you off – I am sure you will be pleasantly surprised.

But for me if you really want a pointless activity, remake a classic. If you need an example of such futility, surely Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho is the gold standard. Or take True Grit. I have nothing against Jeff Bridges, but he just cannot compare to John Wayne in the role of Rooster Coburn. I could also mention Vanilla Sky, The Ladykillers, The Italian Job and the most egregious examplea 1983 TV miniseries based on Casablanca, featuring David Soul as Rick Blaine.

I am not trying to claim that all remakes are bad – The Magnificent Seven, The Front Page, Ben Hur, Some Like It Hot and The Maltese Falcon were all remakes. It tends to work best when you don’t even realise that you are watching one. Really my problem is not with remakes, but with the quality of the output. Hollywood has lost me. The kind of remakes we see is just a symptom of a greater malaise, a worrying lack of creativity and originality.


The first movie with a real story

January 27, 2013

Thanks to YouTube it is possible to see Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery online. Enjoy!


Bringing up kids the New Guinea way – an alternative to helicopter parenting

January 20, 2013

I am currently reading Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? Diamond is the author of the wonderful Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, which sought to explain the huge differences in development among different world regions. His latest book concerns the possible lessons we can draw from analysing traditional societies. We need to remember that humans have lived in bands and tribes for almost all of our history. Diamond looks at areas such as war, justice, religion, language and physical exercise. Today I’m just going to look at chapter five, in which Diamond explains how they bring up children in traditional societies. These practices emerged over millennia with thousands of natural experiments, by societies all over the planet. Can we learn anything from them?

Diamond analyses infant care practises from a mammalian perspective. There are species in which the infant is in constant contact with the mother. In modern hunter-gatherer societies an infant is held almost constantly throughout the day, generally the mother. When the mother is walking, the infant is held in carrying devices. In milder climates, there is constant skin-to-skin contact between her and the infant. This has been the practice throughout almost all of human history. By traditional standards, many of our modern child-rearing practices are absurd. We moderns follow what Diamond calls the rabbit-antelope pattern. The mother or someone else will occasionally pick up and hold the infant in order to feed it or play with it, but the infant will generally spend a large portion of the day in a crib or playpen and at night they sleep alone, usually in a separate room from the parents. This is highly unusual – one cross-cultural survey of 90 traditional human societies could not find a single one in which mother and infant slept in separate rooms.

In relation to physical punishment there are huge variations. Diamond describes a mother who rubbed stinging nettle leaves into her eight-year old daughter’s face, causing the child to scream uncontrollably in agony. Other groups have a Spock-like permissiveness. How can one explain why some societies practise physical punishment of children, while others don’t? There does seem to be a broad trend: most hunter-gatherer bands do minimal physical punishment of young children, most farming societies do more punishment, with herders being especially likely to punish. The rise of agriculture led to greater gender and age inequality. Deference and respect became important. Therefore physical punishment became an important disciplinary tool.

What observers of traditional societies do notice is how self-confident and independent the kids are even at a young age. Diamond tells of Talu, a 10-year-old boy from New Guinea who volunteered to be a porter for him. As his parents were not around, Talu didn’t ask permission from them – he just went off with Diamond. When the parents came back, they would be told by one of the villagers that their son had gone off with some unknown white man for some unknown length of time. The boy had originally agreed to go off for seven days, but that week finally turned into a month. In New Guinea you assume that kids are independent, and are capable of making their own decisions. As a result of this they’re more autonomous, self-confident people. Diamond describes another band in which young children were allowed to do pretty much as they pleased. If a baby was playing next to a fire, adults did not intervene. Consequently, many adults had burn scars that they had acquired as infants.

A child’s individual autonomy may be a cherished ideal in hunter-gatherer bands, but in the West we seem to be gripped by paranoia. Stranger danger describes is embedded in our culture. We have all received these warnings from our parents:

“Don’t talk to strangers”

“Don’t tell anyone your name”

“Don’t eat sweets off strangers”

The problem is that most child abductions and harm are not due to strangers, but rather someone the child is familiar with or related to. By exaggerating the potential threat you spread fear and mistrust. In the USA 50 children are murdered in what could be described as classic stranger abductions. This is in a country with a population of 315 million.

Stranger danger has contributed to parents keeping children indoors, where they are on the Play Station, resulting in what Richard Louv has called nature deficit disorder. I have to say I’m not really a nature lover. A couple of Woody Allen quotes sum up my attitude:

“I am at two with nature.”

I love nature, I just don’t want to get any of it on me.

While I don’t think we need any new psychological conditions, it is not a good idea to have kids cooped up all day. Apart from obesity, Louv believes that children who don’t get out will be more prone to anxiety, depression and attention-deficit problems.

It’s not just that though. We should want our kids to be street smart. Lenore Skenazy certainly believes this. If you don’t remember her, she was the mother who allowed her son Izzy, then nine years old, to take the New York subway alone. The reaction she provoked was extreme. Google “America’s worst mom” and the first hit you see is hers – some even accused her of child abuse. Skenazy believes that parents are being overprotective and has started her own blog “Free-Range Kids”. Skenazy is part of a backlash against helicopter parenting. The term, originally coined by Foster Cline and Jim Fay, refers to obsessive parents who like helicopters, hover overhead.

We are not going to go back to bringing up our children like they do in New Guinea. Diamond is a sympathetic observer of traditional societies, but he doesn’t try to idealise them either. He also mentions the negative aspects; he doesn’t recommend that we return to the hunter-gatherer practices of selective infanticide, or letting infants play with knives or fire. Being a parent is intimidating. I sometimes think that by what we do, or fail to do, we may be creating a Nobel Prize winner or a serial killer. There is so much conflicting advice. We have Tiger moms who believe that children should be able to solve Fermat’s last theorem by the age of three and should be punished if they don’t get A’s in all their subjects. At the other end of the spectrum is economist Bryan Caplan who believes that we are fussing too much over our kids and that it is nature not nurture which determines how they turn out. I would continue but my kids’ knife throwing game seems to be getting out of hand.


Woody Allen quotes

January 20, 2013

I had a couple of Woody Allen quotes in this week’s post. Here are a few more of my favourites:

From his films:

He never made the ten-most-wanted list. It’s very unfair voting. It’s who you know. Take the Money and Run

[Choosing between freedom and death:] Well, freedom is wonderful. On the other hand, if you’re dead, it’s a tremendous drawback to your sex life. Bananas  

I object, your honor! This trial is a travesty. It’s a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham. Bananas  

Dr. Bernardo: Does it sound mad? That’s what they called me at Masters of Johnsons Clinic, mad. Because I had visions of explorations in sexual areas undreamed of by lesser human beings. It was I who first discovered how to make a man impotent by hiding his hat. I was the first one to explain the connection between excessive masturbation and entering politics. It was I who first said that the clitoral orgasm should not be only for women! They ridiculed me, said I was mad, haha! But I showed them. They threw me out of Masters of Johnson, no severance but, and I had it coming. But I showed them!  Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask

My brain? It’s my second favorite organ. Sleeper  

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.”

Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.

Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?

Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.

Dr. Melik: Incredible.  Sleeper  

Some men are heterosexual and some men are bisexual and some men don’t think about sex at all, you know, they become lawyers. Love and Death

Sex without love is an empty experience. Yes, but—as empty experiences go – it’s one of the best! Love and Death

If it turns out that there is a God, I don’t think that he’s evil. I think that the worst you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever. Love and Death

I was thrown out of N.Y.U. my freshman year for cheating on my metaphysics final, you know. I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me. Annie Hall

I was suicidal as a matter of fact and would have killed myself, but I was in analysis with a strict Freudian, and, if you kill yourself, they make you pay for the sessions you miss. Annie Hall

I can’t listen to that much Wagner, ya know ? I start to get the urge to conquer Poland. Manhattan Murder Mystery

Miscellaneous:

Not only is there no God, but try finding a plumber on Sunday.

More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

[On bisexuality] It immediately doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night.

[On his love for his adoptive stepdaughter, Soon-Yi Farrow] The heart wants what it wants. There’s no logic.

There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?

I’d call him a sadistic, hippophilic necrophile, but that would be beating a dead horse.

To you I’m an atheist; to God, I’m the Loyal Opposition.

His lack of education is more than compensated for by his keenly developed moral bankruptcy.

I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead. Not sick. Not wounded. Dead.

It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

I don’t believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear.


Please handle carelessly – antifragility in a chaotic, random and unpredictable world

January 13, 2013

A reader could easily run out of adjectives to describe Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.” The first ones that come to mind are: maddening, bold, repetitious, judgmental, intemperate, erudite, reductive, shrewd, self-indulgent, self-congratulatory, provocative, pompous, penetrating, perspicacious and pretentious. Review from the New York Times

Taleb has changed the way many people think about uncertainty, particularly in the financial markets. His book, The Black Swan, is an original and audacious analysis of the ways in which humans try to make sense of unexpected events. Daniel Kahneman, psychologist, winner of the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences

Bankers have hijacked the system and people think that’s capitalism. Capitalism is about adventurers who get harmed by their mistakes, not people who harm others with their mistakes. The only way you can have a system that’s robust is when people are punished for mistakes.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb

                                             ___________

Embrace chaos! This is the message in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest book, Antifragility. This latest book is part of a trilogy which also includes Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan. In the former he argues that we tend to confuse non-random outcomes with randomness. He talks about survivorship bias, in which we see the winners and try to “learn” from them, while ignoring the huge number of losers. The Black Swan examines the extreme impact of rare and unpredictable events.  The subtitle of his new book – Things That Gain from Disorder – reflects his belief that people, organisations and systems need to accept chaos and the unknown. If we are prepared for shocks and randomness, we can actually benefit from them. The ideas of Taleb have already appeared in this blog. Three years ago I did a post about interesting contemporary thinkers, which included this Lebanese-born polymath. Then a year ago another post featured a selection of aphorisms from his book The Bed of Procrustes:

To bankrupt a fool, give him information.

With regular books, read the text and skip the footnotes; with those written by academics, read the footnotes and skip the text; and with business books skip both the text and the footnotes.

Trust people who make a living lying down or standing up more than those who do so sitting down.

The rationalist imagines an imbecile-free society; the empiricist an imbecile-proof one, or, even better, a rationalist-proof one.

The author is an iconoclast who enjoys taking shots at people who take themselves, and the quality of their knowledge, too seriously. He is known for venting his spleen on those he dislikes. This new work maintains that tradition with Gordon Brown, Thomas Friedman Alan Greenspan, and Joseph Stiglitz among others coming in for flak.

Taleb coined the term antifragile because he thought the existing words used to describe the opposite of fragility, such as strong, sturdy, tough and unbreakable, were inaccurate. He asks us to imagine that we are in the post office about to send a gift, a package full of champagne glasses, to a cousin in Central Siberia. The package would have “handle with care” stamped on it in bold red letters:

Logically, the exact opposite of a “fragile” parcel would be a package on which one has written “please mishandle” or “please handle carelessly.” Its contents would not just be unbreakable, but would benefit from shocks and a wide array of trauma. The fragile is the package that would be at best unharmed, the robust would be at best and at worst unharmed. And the opposite of fragile is therefore what is at worst unharmed.

Anti-fragility goes beyond robustness; it means that something does not merely withstand a shock but actually improves because of it:

To fragile systems, shocks are threats.

To robust systems, shocks are irrelevant.

To anti-fragile systems, shocks are opportunities.

It is a wide-ranging book brimming with provocative ideas, fascinating insights, pithy phrases and intriguing digressions. It is impossible to do it justice here. All I can do here is give you a flavour. I have a confession to make: I did commit the cardinal sin of reading it on an e-reader, something which would horrify Taleb.

Taleb distinguishes between organic and non-organic systems. He believes that economies are organic and consequently need stressors. He uses the metaphor of forest fires, which can actually be positive for the ecosystem. If you put out the all the fires immediately, which he is comparing to bailout policy, you do get an illusory stability. But the problem is that the brush starts to build up and then when there is a conflagration, it’s the mother of all fires. This is why Taleb is so irate with Brown and Greenspan. They both thought that it was possible to end boom and bust, nonsense that Taleb rightly pours scorn on. He has a term for such people – fragilistas, those whose naive rationalism causes greater systemic fragility. Greenspan’s successor at the Fed, Ben Bernanke, popularised the term The Great Moderation. We apparently knew how to prevent depressions. We should be very sceptical of this fake stability. Taleb has a memorable metaphor. A turkey is fed by the butcher for a thousand days and every day it declares that the butcher “will never hurt it” with increased statistical confidence – until Thanksgiving arrives. Taleb compares this complacency to Steven Pinker’s decline of violence thesis, which I looked at last year. Are the falls in violence documented by Pinker a similar type of illusion?

Taleb argues that you should never bail out companies, only people. We should promote antifragile sectors that benefit from their own mistakes, such as Silicon Valley or restaurants, and not those whose mistakes endanger the system. He wants to stand up for the entrepreneurs who risk everything. What irritates him most are those are immune to failure. They don’t have skin in the game. This term, coined by the great Warren Buffett, refers to a situation in which corporations are run by people who share a stake in the company. You want those you invest in to have their own money on the line. If the company does badly they will also suffer; this is the best risk management tool ever. Taleb takes us back to ancient Babylon and Hammurabi’s Code:

If a builder builds a house and the house collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house—the builder shall be put to death. If it causes the death of the son of the owner of the house, a son of that builder shall be put to death. If it causes the death of a slave of the owner of the house—he shall give to the owner of the house a slave of equal value.

It is the builder who really knows what lies hidden in the foundations. Thus he can easily hoodwink the inspectors; the person hiding risk has a large informational advantage over the ones who have to find it. The foundations, with the possibility of delayed collapse, are the best place to hide risk. You have to give the builder the incentive to do the right thing. The implications for the banking sector are clear.

Taleb attacks top-down solutions what he terms the Soviet-Harvard illusion – lecturing birds on how to fly and believing that the lecture is the cause of these wonderful skills. He believes that trial and error beats academic knowledge, favouring tinkering and bricolage, not centralised planning. I am reminded of that quote by Hayek:

The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.

Although he has a big fan in David Cameron, it is difficult to pigeonhole Taleb ideologically. He believes that small is beautiful, and it is also more efficient. He is critical of big government, but he also attacks corporate monoliths and centralised states. He is highly critical of leaders who send armies off to war without anything for them to lose. He is deeply averse to excessive amounts of debt and leverage within the financial system. With this debt comes risk and exposure to unforeseen events and market fluctuations. History does indeed show that uncontrolled debt can indeed have catastrophic long-term consequences – one of the major causes of the French Revolution was the excessive debt incurred by the Ancien Régime.

I do agree with some of the negative adjectives used by the New York Times reviewer above to describe Taleb’s work. At times he can be maddening, repetitious, judgemental, intemperate, reductive, self-indulgent, self-congratulatory, pompous, and pretentious. But we mustn’t forget the positive adjectives – this book is bold, erudite, shrewd, provocative, penetrating and perspicacious. Even if you disagree with what Taleb is saying – and you may well do so – he does force you to look at your own biases and assumptions.  It isn’t particularly well structured, but you sense this was the intention of the author – make randomness part of the experience. Nevertheless, I feel that after reading the trilogy I do have a better understanding of how our world works.


The parable of the ox

January 13, 2013

Here is a parable about the financial crisis by John Kay that appeared in the  Financial Times last year.

In 1906, the great statistician Francis Galton observed a competition to guess the weight of an ox at a country fair. Eight hundred people entered. Galton, being the kind of man he was, ran statistical tests on the numbers. He discovered that the average guess (1,197lb) was extremely close to the actual weight (1,198lb) of the ox. This story was told by James Surowiecki, in his entertaining book The Wisdom of Crowds.

Not many people know the events that followed. A few years later, the scales seemed to become less and less reliable. Repairs were expensive; but the fair organiser had a brilliant idea. Since attendees were so good at guessing the weight of an ox, it was unnecessary to repair the scales. The organiser would simply ask everyone to guess the weight, and take the average of their estimates.

A new problem emerged, however. Once weight-guessing competitions became the rage, some participants tried to cheat. They even sought privileged information from the farmer who had bred the ox. It was feared that if some people had an edge, others would be reluctant to enter the weight-guessing competition. With only a few entrants, you could not rely on the wisdom of the crowd. The process of weight discovery would be damaged.

Strict regulatory rules were introduced. The farmer was asked to prepare three monthly bulletins on the development of his ox. These bulletins were posted on the door of the market for everyone to read. If the farmer gave his friends any other information about the beast, that was also to be posted on the market door. Anyone who entered the competition with knowledge concerning the ox that was not available to the world at large would be expelled from the market. In this way, the integrity of the weight-guessing process would be maintained.

Professional analysts scrutinised the contents of these regulatory announcements and advised their clients on their implications. They wined and dined farmers; once the farmers were required to be careful about the information they disclosed, however, these lunches became less fruitful.

Some brighter analysts realised that understanding the nutrition and health of the ox was not that useful anyway. What mattered were the guesses of the bystanders. Since the beast was no longer being weighed, the key to success lay not in correctly assessing its weight, but rather in correctly assessing what other people would guess. Or what others would guess others would guess. And so on.

Some, such as old Farmer Buffett, claimed that the results of this process were more and more divorced from the realities of ox-rearing. He was ignored, however. True, Farmer Buffett’s beasts did appear healthy and well fed, and his finances were ever more prosperous: but, it was agreed, he was a simple countryman who did not really understand how markets work.

International bodies were established to define the rules for assessing the weight of the ox. There were two competing standards – generally accepted ox-weighing principles and international ox-weighing standards. However, both agreed on one fundamental principle, which followed from the need to eliminate the role of subjective assessment by any individual. The weight of the ox was officially defined as the average of everyone’s guesses.

One difficulty was that sometimes there were few, or even no, guesses of the oxen’s weight. But that problem was soon overcome. Mathematicians from the University of Chicago developed models from which it was possible to estimate what, if there had actually been many guesses as to the weight of the animal, the average of these guesses would have been. No knowledge of animal husbandry was required, only a powerful computer.

By this time, there was a large industry of professional weight guessers, organisers of weight- guessing competitions and advisers helping people to refine their guesses. Some people suggested that it might be cheaper to repair the scales, but they were derided: why go back to relying on the judgment of a single auctioneer when you could benefit from the aggregated wisdom of so many clever people?

And then the ox died. Among all this activity, no one had remembered to feed it.


A pedants’ guide to foot-in-mouth disease

January 4, 2013

Birds are entangled by their feet and men by their tongues. Thomas Fuller (1608-61), English clergyman and wit

Bloopers are the lowlife of verbal error, but spoonerisms are a different fettle of kitsch. Roger Rosenbaltt

 _________

For my first post of 2013 I want to talk about a subject dear to my heart – a verbal gaffe known as the malapropism. However, first I need to define what a malapropism is NOT. There are other speech errors which shouldn’t be considered true malapropisms. I am going to provide a few examples of these.

Firstly we have anticipations, where you anticipate a sound that is about to come up.

Example:  “Our national interest ought to be to encourage the breast and brightest.” Teddy Kennedy (George W. Bush has also made this mistake – see the video above)

The opposite of this is called perseveration, in which the sound from the first word carries on into the next one.

Example:  rule of thumb becomes rule of rum

Thirdly there are blends, in which the speaker has to decide between two words and ends up saying a mixture of the two.

Example: At the end of today’s lection (lecture/lesson)

Finally we have spoonerisms, in which a speaker accidentally transposes the initial sounds or letters of two or more words, often to humorous effect. They are named after the Reverend Dr. William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930), who attended New College, Oxford, as an undergraduate in 1862, and would remain there for over 60 years in various posts. He probably did make a few unintended transpositions, but the legend soon outstripped the reality. Decades later one of his students lamented that “I was always hoping to hear him utter a spoonerism, but never did.” Anyway here are some of Spooner’s alleged gaffes that I found online:

What he said What he meant
fighting a liar lighting a fire
you hissed my mystery lecture you missed my history lecture
cattle ships and bruisers battle ships and cruisers
nosey little cook cosy little nook
a blushing crow a crushing blow
tons of soil sons of toil
our queer old Dean our dear old Queen
we’ll have the hags flung out we’ll have the flags hung out
you’ve tasted two worms you’ve wasted two terms
our shoving leopard our loving shepherd
a half-warmed fish a half-formed wish
is the bean dizzy? is the Dean busy?

Having looked at what a malapropism is not we need to define what it actually is. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “the usually unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase; especially the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context” There are three typical features of a malapropism:

  1. It is not a nonsense word; it actually exists.
  2. It isn’t related in meaning to the target word.
  3. There are significant similarities in pronunciation with the target word.

The word malapropism comes from the name of a character in an 18th-century play by Richard Sheridan called The Rivals. Mrs. Malaprop (derived from the French phrase mal à propos, literally “ill-suited”), is the butt of many of the jokes in the play, as she is continually coming out with the wrong word:

He is the very pineapple of politeness!” (pinnacle)

I have since laid Sir Anthony’s preposition before her;” (proposition)

Oh! it gives me the hydrostatics to such a degree.” (hysterics)

“…she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile.” (alligator)

Why, murder’s the matter! Slaughter’s the matter! Killing’s the matter! – but he can tell you the perpendiculars.” (particulars)

His physiognomy so grammatical!” (phraseology)

Sure, if I reprehend any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!”  (apprehend, vernacular, arrangement, epithets)

This device had been used by other authors before – I can still remember Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing – but malapropism is the word that has stuck. In his book Anguished English, An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language, Richard Lederer has some wonderful examples:

In many states, murderers are put to death by electrolysis.

The marriage was consummated at the altar.

Man arrested for possession of heroine.

And my favourite:

Reagan goes for juggler in Midwest.

This is the power of a great malapropism – it creates a vivid image in your head.

Malapropisms have been the subject of serious academic research. You can learn a lot about how language works from when things go wrong. Anne Cutler of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and David Fay of Verizon Laboratories analysed 183 malapropisms from a speech error corpus. They found that the intended word and the error were in the same grammatical category 99% of the time. They had the same number of syllables 87% of the time. And they shared the same stress pattern 98% of the time. They make an interesting claim: malapropisms are not the result of the misuse of a word, but of a bad selection somewhere in the speech production process.

Why do they happen? Speaking is complicated. We have to summon the right word from our mental dictionary in around 600 milliseconds. There are two important criteria:

  1. Is it the right part of speech that you need for this point in the sentence?
  2. Does it have the right meaning?

What’s more our mental lexicons prioritise listening and comprehension over word retrieval. Consequently, we tend to go for a sound-alike word instead of the word we really want. It is hardly surprising that sometimes things go awry.

This is all well and good but isn’t there also the effect of speakers trying to punch above their linguistic weight? They want to appear erudite, but they end up with egg on their face. Of course we tend to be less charitable about other people’s mistakes, especially if they have comedy value. Who can resist a chuckle when politicians, celebrities or sportspeople use the wrong word? So I will finish with a few of my personal favourites:

When Iraq is liberated, you will be treated, tried, and persecuted as a war criminal.” George W. Bush

“I can say that without fear of contraception.”  Hylda Baker

“Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.” Dan Quayle

“Let’s dispense with all the discussion and get to the crotch of the matter.” Clarence Purfeerst, Minnesota Democrat senator