“It’s a foot-to-mouth existence yaar,” lamented a long lost friend of mine, reflecting on the dwindling profits in his business because of intense competition, especially from the Chinese.
Well, he put his foot in his mouth all right; however, I am not too sure about a distant elderly uncle of mine whom I ran into at a wedding recently. I sought him out and greeted him in typical Coorg style by touching his feet three times. He gave me a levelled look as he smoked his pipe. He then exhaled a cloud of smoke from the corner of his mouth and said: “I remember the name, but forget the face!” I am still trying to figure out if it was a case of slip-of-the-tongue or a deliberate attempt at being downright nasty.
The chief who ‘delivered’ his speech
Talking of goof-ups, the oft-repeated is the one about an absent-minded professor hunting for his reading glasses while wearing them. That was until we heard another story of a hysterical mother who frantically went around asking the whereabouts of her youngest child while carrying the baby on her hip!
One of the classic faux pas of the action kind is the joke about a busy executive who, in typical ‘Dagwood’ style, while rushing to catch the morning carpool to office, kissed the door and slammed the wife.
But, one of the best mix-ups, which happened about five decades ago, involved a tribal chief of a remote island colony of the British. The chief was to make a speech on the occasion of the visit to the island by no less a person than the then-young Queen of England, accompanied by her royal consort, the Duke of Edinburgh.
All the dignitaries were seated on the dais, and the chief proudly wore his traditional costume, which was the bare minimum, consisting of a few beads and feathers. He had carefully written down his speech on a piece of paper, which he placed on the chair and sat on it since his attire had no possibilities for pockets. His favourite wife sat next to him, again wearing bare essentials.
When it was the chief’s turn to make the speech, he stood up and tried to pick up the piece of paper. But the paper had got stuck to his bare bottom! Unwittingly, the chief turned around and stooped over the chair searching for the slip of paper, unaware that it was wedged on to his rear. Photographers were quick to shoot the scene with the chief bending over the chair, and the audience getting a full view of the piece of paper stuck to his backside appropriately in level with the mike. A bemused queen and other dignitaries had to keep a straight face. One of the tabloids published the candid visuals the following day with an apt caption—“The Chief delivering his speech!”
Have you hissed all my mystery lectures?
Talking of foot-and-mouth disease, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, describes himself as suffering from Dontopedalogy—the tendency of opening one’s mouth and putting a foot in it. His faux pas are often intentional and are meant as put-downs.
One of them aimed at women was: “When a man opens the car door for his wife, it’s either a new car or a new wife.” A deliberate diplomatic gaffe by the prince was directed at the visiting president of Nigeria, who was wearing traditional robes: “You look like you’re ready for bed!” During an official visit to Papua New Guinea in 1998, the prince had this to say to a British student who was trekking there: “You managed not to get eaten, then?”
Reverend Spooner’s howlers such as, “Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride?”, “Kinquering Kongs their titles take”, “You have hissed all my mystery lectures and in fact you have tasted the whole worm and must leave by the first town drain” are all without a doubt inscrutable. The Reverend, who taught at Oxford, was so prolific with his unfathomable slips of the tongue that a word has been coined in his name—Spoonerism—which means the tendency to mix-up words beyond comprehension.
It is Samuel Goldwyn whose lapsus linguae are indubitably the most amusing. His famous “Include me out” is a classic, and the most profound. The more one ponders on “Include me out” the more philosophical it gets.
Goldwyn’s other timeless nuggets are: “Elevate those guns a little lower”, “I’ll tell you in two words: im-possible”, “We have all passed a lot of water since those days”, and: “A verbal contract is not worth the paper it is written on” are all-time greats. Once, Samuel Goldwyn raised a toast to Field Marshal Montgomery as ‘Marshal Field Montgomery’. His speech-errors are now famously known as Goldwynism, and the word has gone into the dictionary along with Spoonerism.
Lords or lumps?
Another hilarious case of the lapsus linguae occurred when a rather nervous novice nun, after pouring tea for a senior bishop, asked most reverentially, holding a bowl of sugar cubes: “How many lords, my lump?”
One enthusiastic letter-writer to the editor put his foot in his mouth when he wrote, “Since crime is the number one problem in our country, we should make the death sentence more severe.”
In the same vein, former Vice-president Dan Quayle had this profundity: “If we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure.”
Years ago I heard a well-known newscaster on the All India Radio’s evening news bulletin announce: “A new breed of chicken has been developed which has very low morality.” He realised his slip, and quickly corrected himself by substituting ‘morality’ with ‘mortality’.
At home, we keep teasing my wife about her propensity for writing letters, and very often not mailing them. She outdid herself a few years ago when snail-mail was still in vogue by mailing a letter without writing it! The aerogramme addressed to our friends in Canada without a word written inside was promptly sent back by them with the comment, “Reading your letter was like listening to the sound of silence.”
A Rotarian husband wrote a speech for his nervous wife and told her, “Nothing to worry dear, all you need to do is simply shut your eyes and read it.” That reminds me of my mother chiding us when we were young: “Just shut your mouth and eat what’s on your plate.”
Whenever I come across a case of malapropism, I remember a teacher from my school days who used to make light of a faux pas committed by him, by saying: “Sorry boys, for the tongue-of-the-slip!”
Excerpted with permission from Tongue of the Slip by C P Belliappa, published by Rupa Publications.
This was first published in the July 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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