3 Dialogue Terms You Probably Didn’t Know (but Should!)

by Liz Bureman | 17 comments

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With 2014 on the other side of the sunset, I wanted to write something relevant to the changing of time, the promise of a new year, the symbolism of a new year meaning a new start.

And then I saw that there exists something called a “spoonerism” in writing, and all my previous ideas immediately went out my ear.

Robin Hood Men In Tights

I don't know about the rest of you, but I've often found myself talking faster than my brain can create words to send down to my mouth (that's probably not physiologically how information actually gets transmitted, but that's what I imagine). It's not uncommon for me to start saying one thing and then switch what I'm saying halfway through the word, so it doesn't come out recognizable in any way, shape, or form.

I don't know if there's a special name for when that happens, but here are a couple fun terms for linguistic tangles that also occur.

Spoonerism

A spoonerism happens when consonants, vowels, or syllables are switched between two words.

The term comes from the Reverend William Archibald Spooner, who was apparently notorious for committing this verbal sin, although there aren't many spoonerisms that can be definitively attributed to him.

In pop culture, the princess in Jim Henson's Muppet retelling of the Frog Prince speaks in spoonerisms constantly as part of her enchantment, and the Sheriff of Rottingham from Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men In Tights uses these when he gets frustrated (“Struckey has loxed again!” instead of “Loxley has struck again!”).

While spoonerisms are often unintentional slips of the tongue, sometimes they are deliberately used as a form of wordplay.

Mondegreen

The word “mondegreen” comes from an essay by Sylvia Wright, in which she retells the story of her mother reading poems out loud to her from Percy's Reliques, and she mishears “laid him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen”.

Consequently, a mondegreen is a line that is misheard from poetry or song, or just a terrible sound system.

Song lyric examples include Jimi Hendrix's lyric from “Kiss the Sky” being misheard as “kiss this guy”. There's even a whole online database dedicated to documenting lyrical mondegreens.

Malapropism

A malapropism is the act of swapping out one word for a similar-sounding but completely different word.

Malapropisms have their origin in the Richard Brinsley Sheridan play The Rivals, which has a character named Mrs. Malaprop who peppers them liberally throughout her speech, replacing “apprehend” with “reprehend”, “obliterate” with “illiterate”, and “epithets” with “epitaphs”. The constable Dogberry from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing also does this frequently, so the term “dogberryism” may be used in place of malapropism.

In almost all of these examples, hilarity is the end result. If you're looking to branch out in writing comedy, introducing some of these turns of phrase and trips of the tongue might be a good way to get some humor into your writing if you've hit a wall or are looking to play more with the English language.

So what do you think? Which of these terms is your favorite?

PRACTICE

Write a New Year's Eve scene using as many examples of the above dialogue slips as possible. After fifteen minutes, post your practice in the comments and leave notes for your fellow writers.

Happy New Year!

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Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

17 Comments

  1. Keith Skinner

    I don’t know if I should claim it as a favorite, but I think malapropisms are more common than the other two and I certainly savor the good ones. I once had a cigar-chewing boss who was a cross between Perry White and Yogi Berra. On the way to lunch one day, he said it was so cold, he “could eat a whole latrine of soup.” Ba-dum-pa.

    Reply
    • Marilyn Ostermiller

      Perfectly funny.

    • Beck Gambill

      That is hysterical! I feel bad taking delight from simple folk making innocent mistakes with language, but I manage to get over it! My brother went through a teenage phase of malapropism, unfortunately the effect wasn’t as humorous as it was troubling.

    • Michael Marsh

      I have never been that hungry for soup.

  2. Richard Huckle

    Knowing the correct meaning for only 1 of those 3, makes me considering revising the New Year’s goals!

    Reply
  3. Arlen Miller

    The crock struck 12. The pig pawl dropped. It all punted forward to the coming of more. I have greater things to do and greater things to gain. But only if I’m willing to shim from the swore.

    Reply
  4. Sarah Hood

    My little sister is always coming up with mondegreens and malapropisms…..we like to call them “Aubrie-isms.” For example:
    “Curiosity killed the cat, but science fiction brought it back.”
    She called the Statue of Liberty “Statue Celebrity.”
    She called Bilbo Baggins “Bilbo Gaggins.”
    And one time, “Big, squeezy hugs” came out as “Big, greasy hugs.”

    I’ll have to remember to use some of these dialogue techniques in my own writing. I don’t really write much comedy, but they’d be great to use as comic relief! 🙂

    Reply
    • Michael Marsh

      A little girl once told me that her family went to Seattle but she never saw attle at all.

  5. writerrobynlarue

    I love Mondegreens! I’m occasionally guilty of spoonerism if I’m really flustered and always get a wide-eyed star from my family lol.

    Reply
  6. Adelaide Shaw

    If you are anywhere near my age you will remember these song words:
    Mersi dotes and dosi dotes and little lamsydivey
    Translation: Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy

    Reply
  7. Richard Mabry

    Still recall Dave Barry’s confession that he misheard the lyrics, “There’s a bad moon on the rise,” as “There’s a bathroom on the right.” Thanks for sharing these.

    Reply
  8. Michael Marsh

    Ellen Degeneris calls mondegreens monkey hatchets for a reason I can’t recall, but I remember many of these, like my brother thinking Bob Seeger was singing about a night moose and of course Creedence Clearwater’s “there’s a bathroom on the right” and “Who’ll stop Lorraine.”
    When I was sitting in the doctor’s office a while ago I heard a woman say: “He got down to about 195 but I didn’t like the way he looked. He was so emancipated.”

    Reply
  9. Winnie

    Hope my effort won’t offend religious sensitivities.

    “Make me a cowboy, make me a cowboy, make me a Mexican cowboy.” Dale mockingly beat his heart. He’d been to midnight Mass on Christmas eve with his family, and was reluctant to kneel through another lengthy service.
    Richard pointed his walking cane at his eldest son. “Is this what all those years in an expensive Catholic school taught you?”
    Now in his late fifties Dale still remembered the responses to the old Latin Mass. “Okay then, mea cupa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”
    “That’s better,” Richard mumbled.
    “Hurry, we’ll be mate for lass.” In her haste his youngest daughter Glenda found her mouth racing ahead of her brain.
    The family was getting ready to attend the New Years service, because Glenda insisted. She tried calming her fatherdown. “This Mass is much shorter. It’s for good luck in 2014. Think of how well you’ll do with the horses, Dad.”
    “You and all those saints and their ruptures,” little Tom chipped in. Like any young boy he was also a reluctant church-goer.
    “Tom!” Richard was so outraged he almost struck him down with his stick. The five-year-old dodged behind his father.
    Whoa Dad.” Dale stepped forward. “Tim won a prize for memorising Psalm 23.” He turned to his son. “Didn’t you?” The boy nodded vigorously. “Show Grandad,” Dale hard-whispered in his ear, and pushed him forward.
    As the little boy commenced reciting. Richard’s face softened. He sank down on the sofa and listened intently. Even Dale felt his eyes mist over as his youngest recited the familiar lines.
    When he’d finished Richard cupped a hand to his ear and asked him to repeat the last line, loudly.
    Tim shouted, “Shirley goodness and mercy – “
    Everyone in the room dissolved in laughter.

    This exercise reminded me of paraprosdokian sentences. Here’s one: to err is human, to forgive divine, but it’s best to just laugh it off,

    Reply
    • AC Barrett

      These characters are endearing. I’ve reread a few times trying to figure out why I get the impression that it’s set in the 1970s or 80s… no clue; maybe it’s because I hung out with a family of Catholics in those years. Regardless, thank you for sharing it (and thanks also for the term “paraprosdokian”).

    • Winnie

      You’re quite right. The Mass has changed so much that the old Latin version is remembered only by those oldies who were altar boys when they were young..

  10. AC Barrett

    I drifted into the party noise feeling squirrely but approachable. It’d been a long hard week and I needed a break. Tonight my happy face was on. No test detonations for me tonight, no siree. No pens pocket-pinched by Obadiah, the lab octopus; I’d found two in the sand at the bottom of his aquarium. No orphans who turn out to be short, handsy 45-year old guys in wigs. Not tonight. Easing into the crowd, unobtrusively primping up the skirt of my knock-off designer LBD, I grabbed a glass of peach-colored bubbly. It was luscious and its shade matched the lighting in the room, which both flattered the glittering, chattering crowd and made my cheap rhinestones look… well, OK, good enough. Tagging along with the foot traffic I moseyed over to one of several hors d’oeuvres tables to check things out. Fabulous spread. Lots of good-looking guys here tonight, too, and a number of them smiled back at me; idly, I sipped and targeted, sipped and targeted, moving to the soft jazz. I had all night.

    This short guy with a near military high-and-tight sidled up next to me, nursing a beverage of his own and gazing morosely at a silvery plate of garlic shrimp on toast points. Well, that couldn’t be a wig, I thought. Nonetheless, I tried to ignore him.

    But, no. He squared his body in my direction and smiled up at me, clearly an effort. “Trimp looks shasty, huh?” Then he grimaced. “Shrimp. Looks. Tasty.” His shoulders slumped so far I feared he’d sprung a leak, but that was secondary. At present I was urgently more concerned with what he knew, and when he’d learned it. Runner-up question: from whom had he gotten his information? Was he just some joker making fun of the science geek? Was he confirming an ID? Or was this actually some kind of lame attempt to make conversation? He looked up at me with an apologetic shrug.

    “They do, for sure,” I said, on guard. Well, short of dashing for the door there was no way out of it: spend any time yakking with this guy and I’d end up confirming everything he’d heard. Might have heard. Oh, hell. I admit it: tonight I was in a mood to throw caution down the nearest stairwell and just enjoy myself. Anyway, unlike Obadiah I couldn’t very well change my spots and disappear into the wallpaper.

    I sighed and forged ahead. “Hey, mike the lusic? I mean, like the music?” Well, there you go, I thought. The chick who hangs out with klepto octupi.

    “Did you do that on purpose?” he asked, his face clouding.

    “No, no,” I said. “It’s just something that happens.”

    He gave me the “don’t trust you” face.

    “Seriously. It’s happened all my life. Not every single time I talk, of course. Just…”

    His eyes softened a little wider. They were nice eyes, complimented by a nice smile. “Just every time you’d like to make a good impression,” he said, so gently that I could hardly hear him over the music.

    “Ah. Yeah,” I said. I smiled down at the table, unaccountably stunned. “Oh, here. Have some post toints.” I put a couple on his plate, and a couple on another plate for me. We went down the table choosing a few goodies each.

    “Would you, um, like to kind someplace fiet to talk?” His smile broadened. “I saw some corner seating earlier.”

    “Love to,” I said, fluttering my eyelashes a bit, all the time thinking, could this thing even possibly work? What the hell. I took his free hand in mine and away we went, moving to the jazz beat.

    (Doing a relationship scene elsewhere right now and that seems to have tinted this effort. But, hey; I’m going with it.)

    Reply
  11. Brakeman

    Actually all three of these speech mannerisms were prominently brought together into the public arena by our infamous former Pres. George W. (and he still even managed to open a “Library”)

    Reply

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  1. 3 Dialogue Terms You Probably Didn’t Know... - […] With 2014 on the other side of the sunset, I wanted to write something relevant to the changing of…
  2. Mondegreen: Definition and Examples for Writers - […] covered mondegreen on The Write Practice in the past. Here’s Liz on the […]

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