Blog Post

Pull the Cat Out of the Bag

I keep a linguistics notebook for everything interesting that I hear people say. I usually forget to write in it, but when I do, I end up documenting some of my favourite utterances. It ranges from typos while texting to strange pronunciations or spoonerisms. Often, these things make me giggle and get ridiculously excited, but no one around me feels that rush.

I’d like to share some of my findings with you, so that you might understand why I do this and what makes it so fun.

A recent example comes from my acoustic phonetics class, my lecturer, Prof Raj Mesthrie, demonstrating his ‘ah’ vowel. After zooming in to the oscillogram, the result was a really clean, periodic wave form. This prompted him to say, “Look at my beautiful aahhs… Wait, maybe I shouldn’t say it like that”. A highly respected South African linguist unintentionally telling our class to… well, I hope you can understand why that was amusing, but I guess half of it lies in the deadpan delivery of it all.

Similar observations I’ve made recently are wonderful malaphors. This is the blending of idioms or clichés. My brother, when talking about how a big surprise was ruined used the phrase ‘pull the cat out of the bag’ without even thinking about it. I love these unplanned moments of genius in language, since both of the original idioms (‘the cat’s out the bag’ and ‘pull a rabbit out of a hat’) applied to his story and without missing a beat he combined them, unintentionally.

While I was completing my TEFL course earlier this year, I had the privilege to hear both the constructions ‘eye raising’ and ‘out of the corner of my ear’. The first instance applied to an experience that was not only hair-raising but also extremely surprising, thus I guess the speaker thought something along the lines of how you raise your eyebrows when you’re surprised. The second was a friend recounting how they’d over-heard a secret.

Perhaps these might not tickle you as entertained, but I will continue to document all the weird and wonderful things the people around me say, even though it annoys my friends when I keep asking them to repeat their ‘mistakes’.

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Some of my journals where I record linguistic observations (Photo by Joan Redelinghuys)

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