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story.lead_photo.caption Brenda Looper

Heterophemy (HET-uh-ruh-fee-mee), noun: The use of a word different from the one intended.

Occasionally I'm asked to give some sort of public presentation. In most cases, I decline, and heterophemy is part of the reason.

When I was a teenager in high school, and then college, I spoke in front of people all the time: 4-H speeches, class presentations, etc., and I sang in chorales. I often even combined my love of singing with public speaking, using a song as an attention-getter at the beginning of a speech (singing the national anthem for a speech on patriotism in an English seminar class was an experience not to be forgotten).

I was never good at speaking off-the-cuff, even if I knew my material cold, so I'd come off as a babbling idiot. Ask me to act out an improv scene, though, and I'd be all in. The difference was that in one case I was being myself, a nerdy introvert who often had stage fright (cue me running off the stage when I was to sing at a 4-H talent show; it would have been my first performance in front of strangers), but in the other, I was someone else. I've never been able to figure out how to marry the two, and I can't always have a script.

Since my stroke 5Ā½ years ago, my brain doesn't always work as quickly as it used to. I'd rather not look like an idiot in front of strangers (family and friends already know I can be a bit of a doofus in person; I'd prefer to preserve a little mystique for others). The last time I spoke in public, I had notes, but not enough, so it was an uncomfortable hour for all of us in that room (sorry, SPJ students!).

Fun fact: I typed "mystique" as "mistake" at first, so heterophemy affects my brain when I'm typing too. But I can edit the written word; there's no edit or rewind button for speech, dang it.

I was reminded of this last week when I received the first of the week's A.Word.A.Day emails from Anu Garg at, with the theme being words about words and language.

In medical terms, heterophemy may be considered a form of aphasia, the loss of the ability to understand or express speech, caused by brain damage. It's referred to as heterophasia, but it's a little more specific than the occasional wrong word: It's the habitual substitution of meaningless or inappropriate words for those intended.

Aphasia was one of my symptoms; I could understand, but couldn't express anything but a keening wail. That and the dysphagia (inability to swallow) and loss of motor control cleared up after I was administered tPA. I wasn't saying words other than those intended because I simply couldn't speak. Still, I often will say a word I didn't mean to say (no, not the blue ones), just as I did before the stroke. We all do. Some of us are just more paranoid about it.

Heterophemy might also be called malapropism, which takes its name from Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 play "The Rivals," who in turn was named for "malapropos," meaning inappropriate. It's also sometimes called Dogberryism after Dogberry in William Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing." Both characters used malapropisms to great comic effect.

Unfortunately for us, most of the time when we utter malapropisms, it isn't all that funny. To us, anyway; it may be hilarious to others.

Not all mistakes could be called heterophemy or malapropisms; sometimes the wrong word is used because it's a similar word that means something entirely different and the writer/speaker doesn't know that ... or simply doesn't care. (Don't do that; you should care about what you say, and not just because grammar grouches will be all over you.)

Flout means to openly disregard something, while flaunt means to display something ostentatiously. While one may flaunt his flouting of the mask mandate, they are not the same thing. Entitled means that you deserve something, while titled means given a name; a book or composition is titled, not entitled (except for maybe an award).

Don Sweeny of Quincy, Mass., said of A.Word.A.Day's heterophemy entry: "'Smart' phones sporting autocorrect for texters prove capricious with context, littering the literal landscape with one heterophemy after another, turning helpfulness into a hassle, forcing one to carefully parse each paragraph before pushing the final send, lest unintended words carry content that can create contentious communiques. You know what I moan ...?"

Yep, sure do, as my texts to and from other people tend to be filled with odd autocorrects such as "slippery" instead of "slighted," or "Columbia" instead of "column" (????). This is why it takes me so long to send a text.

I can't not edit, even in texts. I know, it's a sickness.

I don't see a time in my future when I'll be comfortable speaking in front of a group again, though that could change if I can get over my fear of heterophemy.

Singing can't always save me, nor can notes. I may have to start using cute kitten videos.

They won't even notice me sneaking out the back.


Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at Email her at


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