Malapropisms und mich: The black sheep the German language never saw coming

Illustration of a black sheep and a dark horse having a conservation on a bench.
Rachel Lee/Staff

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I grew up speaking English, German and, despite my mother’s efforts of separation and distinction, a hopscotch skip — one word in English and two words in German, bouncing between each language.

By high school and college, my mother’s exasperation with my speaking habits gave way to my louder personal reckoning and sharp fear of losing my mother’s native Austrian language. As life picked up, German dinner conversations, Bundesliga Sundays and my childhood of speaking German faded quickly. 

To combat eternal moral guilt, I picked up a German course last semester. Then, as school ended and summer settled, I disappointed the Duolingo owl less and found times for weekly German chats with some of my classmates.

Compared to English, German is unabashedly literal. My childhood conversations existed in the air, but as my interactions with German formalized through purposeful effort and in the classroom, I’d find myself gleefully delighting in the language’s direct translations. There’s little to guess with words such as the German term for “hospital,” “Krankenhaus,” which literally breaks down to “sick house.” Other nouns — such as “Spaßvogel,” or “fun bird,” for jokester; “Wörterbuch,” or “word book,” for dictionary; and “Glühbirne,” or “glow pear,” for lightbulb — only add to the mountain of ample evidence.

I’m oddly grateful to find this natural clarity in the German language, as a frequent user of what is known as a malapropism: an undoubtedly undervalued and obscure literary device that manifests itself in my conversations and thoughts.

The term “malapropism” takes its roots from Mrs. Malaprop, a character in the 18th-century comedy of manners by Richard Brinsley Sheridan called “The Rivals.” Mrs. Malaprop stars as the play’s chief comic relief with her malapropisms, or continual misuse of words that sound like the words she intends to use but mean something completely different.

For example, at one point Mrs. Malaprop says, “I have since laid Sir Anthony’s preposition before her,” replacing “proposition” with “preposition.” In another instance, she exchanges “particulars” for “perpendiculars,” exclaiming, “Why, murder’s the matter! Slaughter’s the matter! Killing’s the matter! But he can tell you the perpendiculars.

In personal practice, one of my latest examples came out of using “hibachi” — as in, hibachi grill — for Hachi, one of Hollywood’s favorite canines. This is a very specific example, but the list goes on. I’ve been known to trade “black sheep” for “dark horses” and haphazardly label situations Catch-22s or pyramid schemes at any sign of confusion or complexity. My use of malapropisms is a quirk that even influenced my creation of the word “coralign”: a fancy blend of “correlate” and “align.” 

Malapropisms are my favorite reminder that language and humor both thrive from a certain amount of playfulness and creativity of the literal and given. And sure, sometimes malapropisms purely spark confusion and a lack of cohesion and understanding. Their presence is an easter egg of my personality that takes some time to get used to, as well as a forgiving agreement to be a part of. But there’s a sweet synthesis for me between malapropisms and the literalness of the German language. 

Language matters, but I think it’s important to note that it’s not unchanging or uncompromising. Across spectrums of culture, rhetorical use and grammar, language functions as a mirror of our identity and psychological processing.

My malapropisms act as a solvent to what I don’t understand, making them purposeful as much as inadvertent. It’s a translation for how I deconstruct and associate the foreign — when I don’t remember the term “domestic violence,” for example, my brain scrabbles and renders the next best thing: in-house violence. 

Because of such unclear language happenings and their related cousins, German feels like such a grounding counterweight. Reading between the lines isn’t fun when you can’t read at all; even more so, malaprop-making can’t even happen if I don’t understand the bare minimum definitions of words. And while Google isn’t far, the German language is not only fortunately upfront but inherently scripted for me in a way that makes the riddle of meanings less of a puzzle.

A bit of wishful thinking and my innate desire for a successful young adult novel plot arc chalk my malapropisms up to be a derivative of my bilingual youth. And while I know we tell ourselves the stories we want to hear, I’m not at all above letting myself have this one. 

Because even if the crossroads of malapropisms and the German language never truly was a juncture, I see and buy into it as such now.

Lisi Ludwig is a deputy photo editor. Contact her at [email protected].