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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