Mistress of orthodoxy

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Nicole Perlroth, "New Study May Add to Skepticism Among Security Experts That North Korea Was Behind Sony Hack", NYT 12/24/2014:

It is also worth noting that other private security researchers say their own research backs up the government’s claims. CrowdStrike, a California security firm that has been tracking the same group that attacked Sony since 2006, believes they are located in North Korea and have been hacking targets in South Korea for years.  

But without more proof, skeptics are unlikely to simply demur to F.B.I. claims. “In the post-Watergate post-Snowden world, the USG can no longer simply say ‘trust us’,” Paul Rosenzweig, the Department of Homeland Security’s former deputy assistant secretary for policy, wrote on the Lawfare blog Wednesday. “Not with the U.S. public and not with other countries. Though the skepticism may not be warranted, it is real.”

As a couple of people pointed out in the comments on that article, Ms. Perlroth doubtless meant defer to ("To submit in opinion or judgement to") rather than demur to ("to raise objection, take exception to").

Errors of this kind are often slips (of the tongue or pen) rather than the result of wrong ideas about what words mean. The fact that the pronunciations of these two words differ in just one segment — [dɪˈfɚ] vs. [dɪˈmɚ], for rhotic Americans — makes such a slip especially likely.

Mrs. Malaprop's word swaps (in Sheridan's play) were apparently intended to represent someone trying to speak beyond her education ("deck her dull chat with hard words which she don't understand", as Captain Absolute puts it), rather than someone prone to slips of the tongue. Here's her first speech in the play:

Mrs. MALAPROP:    There, Sir Anthony, there sits the deliberate simpleton who wants to disgrace her family, and lavish herself on a fellow not worth a shilling.  

LYDIA:    Madam, I thought you once——

Mrs. MALAPROP:    You thought, miss! I don't know any business you have to think at all—thought does not become a young woman. But the point we would request of you is, that you will promise to forget this fellow—to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.

Or again:

LYDIA:   What crime, madam, have I committed, to be treated thus?

Mrs. MALAPROP:   Now don't attempt to extirpate yourself from the matter; you know I have proof controvertible of it.

And after Lydia leaves the room:

Mrs. MALAPROP:  There's a little intricate hussy for you!

Sir ANTHONY:   It is not to be wondered at, ma'am,—all this is the natural consequence of teaching girls to read. Had I a thousand daughters, by Heaven! I'd as soon have them taught the black art as their alphabet!

Mrs. MALAPROP:   Nay, nay, Sir Anthony, you are an absolute misanthropy.

Sir ANTHONY:  In my way hither, Mrs. Malaprop, I observed your niece's maid coming forth from a circulating library!—She had a book in each hand—they were half-bound volumes, with marble covers!—From that moment I guessed how full of duty I should see her mistress!

Mrs. MALAPROP:  Those are vile places, indeed!

Sir ANTHONY:   Madam, a circulating library in a town is as an evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge! It blossoms through the year!—And depend on it, Mrs. Malaprop, that they who are so fond of handling the leaves, will long for the fruit at last.  

Mrs. MALAPROP:  Fy, fy, Sir Anthony! you surely speak laconically.

Sir ANTHONY:  Why, Mrs. Malaprop, in moderation now, what would you have a woman know? 

Mrs. MALAPROP:  Observe me, Sir Anthony. I would by no means wish a daughter of mine to be a progeny of learning; I don't think so much learning becomes a young woman; for instance, I would never let her meddle with Greek, or Hebrew, or algebra, or simony, or fluxions, or paradoxes, or such inflammatory branches of learning—neither would it be necessary for her to handle any of your mathematical, astronomical, diabolical instruments.—But, Sir Anthony, I would send her, at nine years old, to a boarding-school, in order to learn a little ingenuity and artifice. Then, sir, she should have a supercilious knowledge in accounts;—and as she grew up, I would have her instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious countries;—but above all, Sir Anthony, she should be mistress of orthodoxy, that she might not mis-spell, and mis-pronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do; and likewise that she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying. This, Sir Anthony, is what I would have a woman know;—and I don't think there is a superstitious article in it.

Typing demur for defer was probably not this sort of "classical malapropism", but rather a "Fay-Cutler malapropism", the  type of slip that David Fay and Anne Cutler wrote about in their classic 1997 article, "Malapropisms and the structure of the mental lexicon".

A side note: I had completely forgotten the ironic relationship between Mrs. Malaprop's usage problems and the idea that Lydia's independent spirit is the fault of too much reading.

Also, demur does occur in The Rivals:

Mrs. MALAPROP We have never seen your son, Sir Anthony; but I hope no objection on his side.

Sir ANTHONY Objection!—let him object if he dare!—No, no, Mrs. Malaprop, Jack knows that the least demur puts me in a frenzy directly. My process was always very simple—in their younger days, 'twas "Jack, do this";—if he demurred, I knocked him down—and if he grumbled at that, I always sent him out of the room.

But not defer.


  1. Adam Funk said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 3:30 pm

    I'm just curious: did anyone else find the placement of "since 2006" a bit garden-path-like?

  2. Bloix said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 4:41 pm

    Malaprop humor goes back at least to Dogberry in Much Ado:

    Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons, and we would have them this morning examined before your worship.

    And many other examples.

  3. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 5:53 pm

    Possible additional confusion/interference from the adjective "demure" which seems like it ought to describe a young lady who is more likely to be deferential than be all demurring about everything all the time.

  4. Brett said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 6:45 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: I immediately inferred that was the origin of the malapropism, since the "demur"/"demure" confusion has tripped me up in the past.

  5. Ellen K. said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 7:27 pm

    I too think there's likely some confusion with demure. Not being familiar with the word demur, I read it as (having the meaning of) demure (except verbed), which comes out to pretty much the same meaning as defer to. And demure itself is uncommon enough that surely I'm not the only one who doesn't (didn't) know how to spell it.

  6. Mark Stephenson said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 7:36 pm

    "…[dɪˈfɚ] vs. [dɪˈmɚ], for rhotic Americans…"

    Actually, these words rhyme for non-rhotic (e.g. RP Brits) as well: [dɪˈfɜ] vs. [dɪˈmɜ].

  7. uebergeek said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 11:02 pm

    Adam Funk: I'm just curious: did anyone else find the placement of "since 2006" a bit garden-path-like?

    Yep, took me a couple beats to unravel it from the image of a remarkably devoted group of Sony hackers.

  8. Old Gobbo said,

    December 31, 2014 @ 7:26 am

    @J.W.Brewster et al
    to anyone who knows the words demur & demure (which are not that uncommon, surely, if not perhaps in daily use), such confusion is impossible – they reach into quite different areas of activity (law and psychology) – except for jokes. The defer – demur confusion is the most obvious one here.

    @Mark Stephenson: I am not entirely happy about the English-speaking transcription you give for demur: to my ears, the ɜ should be a ə; but I agree the vowels are close enough to confuse. I have more of a problem with confusing an m with an f: I would have thought this is not a very easy mistake to make, but see below.

    @Adam Funk and uebergeek: since 2006: not only garden-pathological but implies that the hackers were on the job even before Sony thought of this wretched film. However, in fairness, putting the phrase anywhere else in the sentence makes for very awkward reading, and we readers must be expected to make some effort ourselves. Overall the piece is not too badly written. For instance you cannot blame the writer for the egregious use of 'fulsome' in the quote from Mr Rosenzwig, though one may query her use of commas ("But without more proof,"). Overall I am inclined to suspect a typing error, albeit an unusual one, and which of course would not be picked up by a spelling checker.

  9. Brett said,

    December 31, 2014 @ 12:04 pm

    @Old Gobbo: You are simply wrong that somebody who knows both "demur" and "demure" could not be confused about them. I certainly know the verb "demur," but it's entirely possible that I have never used it in normal writing or conversation. Seeing "demur" on its own sometimes trips me up (although "demurred"—which I suspect is more common in non-legal writing—is never a problem).

  10. Old Gobbo said,

    December 31, 2014 @ 2:18 pm

    @Brett: Anyone can make a mistake about words, even me: for instance, although I was sure I had checked my typing, I mis-spelt Mr Rosenzweig's name. And I can see that one could look at the two words and wonder for a moment which is which. What I find harder to believe is that, if you were writing this sentence, you would not look at "to simply demure" and say (e.g.), "but this is a verb: do I really mean, "to simply look with an affected modesty to the FBI's claims" ? (OED, citing Johnson's definition of the verb)
    And the same would apply if you wrote "demur" but misread it as "demure".

  11. Alon Lischinsky said,

    January 1, 2015 @ 8:08 am

    @Old Gobbo:

    I am not entirely happy about the English-speaking transcription (i.e., [dɪˈfɜ], [dɪˈmɜ]) you give for demur: to my ears, the ɜ should be a ə

    The traditional description of the RP pronunciation of the NURSE vowel is /ɜː/, not /əː/.

    The difference in heigth between an open-mid and a mid vowel is minimal, though, so it's not unreasonable to believe that some speakers in some contexts will realise it as /əː/

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