June 22, 2004

Inter faeces et urinam nascimur ridemus

Of all the stories I've heard that are based on malapropisms, I think the one that Edmund Morris tells about Ronald Reagan in this week's New Yorker is the most amusing.

Perhaps the best of Reagan’s one-liners came after he attended his last ceremonial dinner, with the Knights of Malta in New York City on January 13, 1989. The evening’s m.c., a prominent lay Catholic, was rendered so emotional by wine that he waved aside protocol and followed the President’s speech with a rather slurry one of his own. It was to the effect that Ronald Reagan, a defender of the rights of the unborn, knew that all human beings begin life as “feces.” The speaker cited Cardinal John O’Connor (sitting aghast nearby) as “a fece” who had gone on to greater things. “You, too, Mr. President—you were once a fece!

En route back to Washington on Air Force One, Reagan twinklingly joined his aides in the main cabin. “Well,” he said, “that’s the first time I’ve flown to New York in formal attire to be told I was a piece of shit.”

I guess this is also a morphological joke, since feces is from Latin faeces, which is the plural of faex "grounds, sediment, lees, dregs of liquids". As far as I know, the English borrowing has never had a singular form, though the AHD says that it's "used with a sing. or pl. verb".

By the way, apparently it's now OK to write "Cardinal John O'Connor" rather than "John Cardinal O'Connor, according to this wikipedia entry.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 22, 2004 11:18 AM