The use of ‘cuddling the enemy’ and other English malapropisms


BY definition, a malaproprism is the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context, as in the misuse of the noun “monotony” for “monogamy” in the sentence “Having one wife is called monotony.”

I brought up this definition of the term so we can properly evaluate whether the phrases “cuddling the enemy” and “barking at the wrong tree” are indeed malaproprisms as pointed out by Isabel M., a Filipina reader based in Hong Kong who feels that the standard of English of Philippine journalism and social media is “truly abysmal” and “really depressing.”

Isabel observes: “It’s just as bad in Facebook, where I recently found someone commenting on the recent disastrous Mindanao military encounter by asking which politicians have been cuddling the enemy. Puts one in mind of men hugging and petting their adversaries! Then there’s that old phrase ‘barking at the wrong tree’ that always strikes me as hilarious. It always reminds me of cats shimmying up trees to escape pursuing dogs who end up barking at them.”

Let’s take up the phrase “cuddling the enemy” first. It’s clearly a malapropism of the idiom “coddling the enemy,” which means “pampering or treating the enemy with extreme or excessive care or kindness,” as in “Intelligence reports show that they knowingly coddled the two wanted terrorists.” In contrast, “cuddling the enemy” (with “u,” not “o”) means “to hold the enemy close for warmth or comfort or in affection”or “to express love or close friendship by hugging the enemy softly and gently.” This is clearly malaprop because it involves an intimate bodily act with the enemy.

I did a Google check of the online editions of major Philippine newspapers and found widespread misuse of “cuddling” for “coddling” in the pampering context. In fairness to their reporters and editors, however, most of the malapropisms appear in unedited readers’ responses to particular news stories or opinion columns, as in “Maybe someone is cuddling the pork barrel queen” in response to a government official’s floating the possibility of using the principal accused as a state witness. (No romantic entanglement was indicated, so that should have been “Maybe someone is coddling the pork barrel queen” instead.)

Now, as to the phrase“barking at the wrong tree,”I don’t think it can rightfully be classified as a malapropism. The correct idiomatic expression is “barking up the wrong tree,” with “up” instead of “at,” which means “to follow the wrong course” or to have completely misunderstood something or to be totally wrong. So, if we strictly go by the basic attributes of idiomatic expressions as being not compositional, not substitutable, and not modifiable, we can say that “barking at the wrong tree” isn’t idiomatic at all but a plain statement that, well, literally means what it says: a dog barking at the wrong tree.

Based on my Google check, the misuse of “barking at the wrong tree” in Philippine journalism appears to be exceptionally high across the board. Here’s a noted academic writing in his newspaper column (italicizations mine): “Even just a few of these ideas have convinced me more than ever that present day Malthusians who talk about the world running out of resources to meet the needs of a growing population are barking at the wrong tree.” A provincial newspaper columnist asking for justice for the fallen 44 SAF commandos: “If it were to me, we have to stop being so emotional at what happened. No use barking at the wrong tree when what has been done is done.” A reader ranting: “That is the cruelest thing a gov’t can do to its people. These PDAF-grabbing politicians are always barking at the wrong tree.”

So perhaps Isabel M. has reason to be depressed about the English in Philippine journalism after all!

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  1. Many newspapers in the Philippines have some excellent researched and grammatically correct articles whereas others frequently mangle the English language. Even restaurants in top class hotels refer to “buttered chicken”. What they really mean is “battered” chicken or chicken coated with a batter made from corn flour and milk and deep fried.

    I once asked for battered chicken and the manager said we just have buttered chicken sir.

    • Paul, I don’t think the Philippine restaurants in the top-class hotels that you mentioned mangled the English language when they referred to “buttered chicken” in their menu. It’s an entirely different dish from “battered chicken,” so what you encountered was actually a clash of cuisine terms in the international arena rather than making mincemeat of the English lexicon.

      I checked a few cookbooks and here’s what I found:

      Butter chicken or murgh makhani is a spicy Hindu dish of chicken that’s marinated overnight in a yogurt-and-spice mixture that usually includes garam masala, ginger, garlic paste, lemon or lime, pepper, coriander, cumin, turmeric and chili. The chicken is usually cooked in a traditional clay oven called tandoor but may be grilled, roasted, or pan fried in less traditional preparations.

      On the other hand, battered chicken is typically a dish where the pieces of chicken are battered or floured with a mix of eggs, milk, leavening, and seasonings, then deep-fried in fat that’s heated in the fryer to the desired temperature. We then can say that battered chicken is chicken fried under pressure.

      So next time, Paul, try ordering butter chicken–make sure to spell it with “u” instead of “o”–and see if murgh makhani would be less or more to your liking. Bon appetit!

  2. Whoa! Through a proofreading oversight, the word “malapropism” was misspelled as “malaproprism” twice in my column–in the very first sentence and in the second as well. That misspelling in itself perhaps should qualify as a semi-malapropism, for which I would like to apologize profusely.

  3. If it were meant as a joke, the sentence “Having one wife is called monotony.” should be o.k. It’s funny!