Mrs. Malaprop lives!

On 24 May, Bill Palmer reported (on ADS-L) a nice classical malapropism, contiguous > contagious, in a letter to the editor of the Chapel Hill News:

…Walgreen’s also purchased four contagious parcels at the intersection of…

I then googled up a few more examples of “contagious parcels” and some of “48 contagious states” and “contagious countries”. And discovered, in that last search, that Mrs. Malaprop herself had been to this territory. From Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals, Act I, Scene II:

MRS. MALAPROP: I would have her instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious countries.

(That’s geometry ‘geography’.)

It’s sometimes been suggested to me that some of Mrs. Malaprop’s verbal missteps are unlikely (“an allegory on the banks of the Nile”, “the very pineapple of perfection”), but as a sometime student of classical malapropisms (“Classical Malapropisms”, Language Sciences, 1979; “Classical Malapropisms and the Creation of a Mental Lexicon”, Exceptional Language and Linguistics, 1982), I can say that real-life examples are occasionally remarkable: deputize > jeopardize, cordon > accordion, soup tureen > soup latrine, stigma > astigmatism. And now we see contagious countries in print.

It started with contagious parcels (of real estate). In addition to the Chapel Hill example, I found only seven more on the web, among them:

The ranch is located in two non-contagious parcels approximately 3/4 mile apart. (link)

The federal government responded by purchasing a large number of contagious parcels with the intent of possibly constructing a military base. (link)

Then there are maybe forty relevant examples of 48 contagious states, for instance:

This bear mace product CAN be legally shipped to all 48 contagious states (also meaning legal in NY, MA, WI and MI where defense spray products are normally … (link)

And some for contagious countries, for instance:

All in all more than 95% of the refugees living in Ethiopia and other contagious countries have returned to their country. (link)

… operations of this team would be based in Pakistan because it had the longest border with Afghanistan (2430km) of all the other contagious countries. (link)

(It’s hard to estimate how many relevant examples are out there. There are lots of hits, but most of them are for the quote from Mrs. Malaprop, and a fair number are for contagious countries ‘countries where some contagious disease (swine flu, in particular) has spread’.)

2 Responses to “Mrs. Malaprop lives!”

  1. Carl M Says:

    It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the more recent examples are due to misspellings that were “corrected” incorrectly by spell-checking software.

  2. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Carl M: that would be what we in the error biz have come to call a Cupertino; there’s a pile of Language Log postings on the subject, starting with this one from 2006.

    In this case, the Cupertino effect is a possible account, but not, I think, the most likely one for most of the cases. On my spell-checker, if you type CONTIGOUS or CONTAGUOUS, you get two possible corrections; CONTIGUOUS is the first correction offered, CONTAGIOUS the second, and that makes sense, because CONTIGUOUS involves the smaller number of changes in these originals. I can get CONTAGIOUS as the top suggestion (and CONTIGUOUS as the second) by starting with CONTAGOUS, but that strikes me as an unlikely misspelling, unless the writer was in fact aiming for CONTAGIOUS.

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