malaprops, mondegreens and metathesis – kid stories

Quick definitions (from

malapropism (AKA malaprop): the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with unintentionally amusing effect, as in, for example, “dance a flamingo ” (instead of flamenco). [The derivation of this one is fun.]

mondegreen: a misunderstood or misinterpreted word or phrase resulting from a mishearing of the lyrics of a song. [derivation]

metathesis: the transposition of sounds, letters or syllables in a word. (I only know this word because I asked my speech-language pathologist daughter, Katie, what the term for it is.)


I had not seen a friend in many months, then ran into her and her 5-year-old daughter. The mom said, “Honey, you remember Susan, don’t you?” The little girl looked at me, light dawned, and she said, “I thought you looked peculiar!”

Lucy Garibay, a 2nd-grader, was working on her classwork. Checking in, I asked, “How are you doing on that, Lucy?” She chirped, “I’ll be done in a gypsy!”

My son Sam loved the thermos in the lunchbox he took to preschool because it kept his drink cold. I heard him explain to a friend how it did this: “It’s isolated.”


At age 2 or 3, I sang “America” just as I heard it: “My country ’tis a flea. . .” Later in the song, my version made much more sense to me than the actual words: “Land where our fathers died, land where the children cried. . .”

Another example in a patriotic song: The sister of a friend, singing “God Bless America” used to sing “. . . through the night with a light from a bulb!”

Our dad was a Prudential agent. My sister thought the hymn we sang in church was “Blessed Insurance.” [For those who had non-Protestant or unchurched childhoods, it’s really called “Blessed Assurance.” If you were here with me, I could sing it for you (at least partway through the first verse).]


Probably the most common example of metathesis is how young kids pronounce spaghetti. I’m sure you have heard at least one variation of this: pasketti or basketti or skabetti? Another oft-heard one is “aminal” for animal.

Mark Miller, a 2nd grader, heard me say that I needed to laminate something. He asked, “What’s lanimate?” Before I could answer, he said, “Oh yeah, that’s when you put plaskit on it.”

My daughter Katie, talked (a lot) by the time she was two, and like a lot of little kids, it took her a year or two before some sounds solidified. For instance she substituted W for L, so “like” was pronounced “wike.” By age five, the only remnant of her early pronunciations was a metathesis. Instead of breakfast, she said “breafakst.” We never corrected her. I loved that one holdover, so I was a little sad when one morning she exclaimed, “Wait a minute — it’s not ‘breafakst,’ it’s breakfast!”

I was told that when I was acquiring a spoken vocabulary, I pronounced fish as “shiff.”

My brother Mark at age 3 or so, loved to rub his hand on his beloved blanket. He would say, “It’s suvvy [fuzzy].” This metathesis includes a confusion of voiced and unvoiced consonants, explained below if you care.*

If you really care, go on to read a very academic explication from the aforementioned SLP, our daughter Katie, about how sounds are produced .**

Without a doubt, every reader can come up with many other examples of the words they’ve heard from kids that meet the definitions of the three Ms. Yes? PLEASE send them my way so I can add them to my collection.

[more on birds and music below footnotes]

* The role of vowels in words is to “let the sound out,” whereas consonants, in general, block the sound in one way or another using lips, teeth or tongue. (This is the way I’ve taught it — Katie gives refinements of my definitions below.) There are pairings among consonants, wherein the same part of the mouth does the blocking, but one of the pair is unvoiced, the other voiced. Examples (unvoiced sound first) are p/b, k/g, t/d, f/v, ch/j, s/z. When I told Katie about my brother saying “suvvy” for fuzzy, she remarked, “Mark’s example is fun because he metathesized the placement of the sounds but retained the voicing of the original sounds – “suvvy” does end up sounding more similar to “fuzzy” than “zuffy” would!”

** Here’s more detail than you probably want. Katie made these refinements to my draft of the first footnote: “The way you explained voicing makes sense, it’s just if your voice is on or off and those pairs are correct (obviously). For consonants I would say they obstruct the sound rather than block. I know that’s a minor semantic quibble but to me “block” implies a full stop and excludes things like fricatives (/s,z/, voiced and voiceless “th”, “sh” and “zh”) and affricates, which are a stop plus a fricative (“ch” is basically t+sh, “j” is d+zh). For phonetics, consonants are defined by place (location in the mouth where the obstruction happens), manner (stop/plosive, fricative, affricate, liquid, glide) and voicing (voiced or voiceless). So, for example, /t/ is a voiceless alveolar stop, /g/ is a voiced velar stop, /f/ is a voiceless labiodental fricative. Liquids and glides are weird and are consonants based on how they affect syllable structure rather than being a true obstruction. Consonantal /r/ (i.e. at the beginning of a syllable) is a liquid, meaning your tongue shape forms the consonant without actual contact between articulators. And glides are made by lip/tongue/jaw movement, those are /l,w/.”

I guess graduate school was worth the money? I just wish I could know all she knows (without forgetting what I know, of course).

more birds

Having recently read all the posts on my friend Parker Davis’s blog (mentioned in my last post), my mind has been particularly receptive to anything having to do with birds. Last week’s New York Times Magazine has a feature article entitled The Mysterious Life of Birds Who Never Come Down. Swifts are intriguing — no doubt about it.

A flock of swifts in the sky

Helen Macdonald, author: “Swifts are magical in the manner of all things that exist just a little beyond understanding. Once they were called the “Devil’s bird,” perhaps because those screaming flocks of black crosses around churches seemed pulled from darkness, not light. But to me, they are creatures of the upper air, and of their nature unintelligible, which makes them more akin to angels. Unlike all other birds I knew as a child, they never descended to the ground.”

Macdonald’s writing is truly remarkable. You don’t need to be a bird enthusiast to enjoy this read. I would love to have been her teacher when she was a child. She relates how, when she was small, she calmed herself to sleep during stressful times by a sort of incantation that expressed a sense of perspective that most people don’t have until middle age — if ever. (I would love to know her now, too.)

[My husband Richard was reading this over dinner and said, “You didn’t say what the incantation was?” I told him he’d have to read the article. He said, “Where’s the link?” and I pointed out it’s in the first paragraph, above the photo. He was outraged that I would expect people to scroll ALL the way up there. So here it is again: The Mysterious Life of Birds Who Never Come Down.]


I knew of Juneteenth before this year, but didn’t know much about it. Due to the protests for Black Lives Matter, many more of us are getting familiar with it. If you want to be filled in some, listen to (47 min) or read the transcript of Juneteenth, an Unfinished Business. Kai Wright, the host, interviews Terrance McKnight, a Black WQXR classical music host, and historian Dr. Daina Ramey Berry, author of A Black Woman’s History of the United States. Folks call in, too. They are experts as well, by virtue of having celebrated Juneteenth their whole lives. Great stories of family and forebears.

From Terrance McKnight: Man, I’ve got so many stories, you know, being here at a New York Public Radio and for 12 years now, twelve years a host, and talking about all kinds of music. Most of it from Western Europe, you know, talking about music from Vienna and Russia and Scotland and Austria and France and Italy. Talking about Hercules and Fair Melusine. And Mozart and Bach…Langston Hughes said, ‘One day, somebody is gonna stand up and talk about me and sing about me. Black and beautiful. Well, I guess it’ll be me.’ Well, tonight is our turn. During the discussion, excerpts from Freedom Day by Max Roach are played, but even better to hear the whole thing (6 min). It’s sung by Abbey Lincoln. Starting around 1:10, it goes instrumental, then at 1:35 a young trumpeter, Booker Little (1937-1961) lets loose with an improvisation that starts a series of them by other instrumentalists, and finally, Abbey returns. If you want more, listen to a 2-hour Juneteenth special The Black Experience in the Concert Hall on WQXR, hosted by McKnight. I haven’t heard this yet, but Minnesota Public Radio also presented a 2-hour+ show to Celebrate Great Classical Music (all written by Black composers) in honor of Juneteenth. Playlists are shown.

I’m starting to grok Juneteenth now — there’s true joy in it, not just fireworks. “Independence Day” is a misrepresentation and should take a back seat.

from the mouths (or pencils) of kids

Excerpt from a HS essay about the importance of teaching the arts in schools:
“One famous artist named Michaelangilo [sic] has made some significant pieces of art. One very recognizable piece titled ‘The Sixteenth Chapel,’ has really captivated peoples interest and has lead [sic] other artists to take risks with art.”


  1. Susan,

    This blog is such a nice format for your writing. It’s easy to reference and link to things. The kid comments are precious. When my daughter, Erica, was young, I had a friend, Sarah, who was a research engineer and worked at the UA science lab. One day, Erica and I were in the car when the radio stopped working. I banged on the dashboard to no avail. Erica said, “Don’t worry, Mom. Sarah can fix it. She’s ingenious at the university!” When I told Sarah, she said when people asked what she did for work, she was going to start answering — “I’m ingenious at the university.”



  2. I also thought the Macdonald essay was great. And the analysis of Mark’s particular metathesis with retained voicing – that is some good SLPing.

    A fun example of metathesis is from my three-year-old niece whose name for my mom has transformed from Grammy to Maggy and then to the current (and best) form, Waggy.


    • I like Waggy, too. If I ever have grandkids (that’s up in the air and I’m not begging!), I wonder what I’ll be called? Maybe Waggy Boo? (I’m assuming you know that Boo is my nickname — if not, that came out of left field.) I knew you’d love the Macdonald article. I’ve reread it several times. I’m at least halfway to becoming a bird enthusiast! xoxo


  3. Laura, when she was about two, used to say “basik” for “basket” and “basump” for “basement.” I loved asking her to say, “There’s a basket in the basement.” Oh, and “slip” was “pips,” and that entered the permanent family vocabulary. “Mom, this dress is kinda sheer. Do you think I need to wear a pips?”


    • I knew that if anyone could come up with examples, it would be you! Thanks. . . I want to get up your way when it becomes possible again. Remember when I called you to say I was coming to Carmel right after you moved to Spokane? Promise me you won’t do that again. . . S


  4. My daughter was an “aminal” lover! And the famous – ‘hangaburgers’. She also used to use ‘G’ instead of ‘D’. as in gog for dog. We lived in Florida, so Disney was big in our house and oddly enough she would talk about “Donald Guck”. Riding in the car with the radio on was always entertaining to hear what she “heard”.
    I love your writing and sharing! Really interesting and educational!! Now if I can find more time to follow some links!! Board retreats homework first!!


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