Have you ever heard someone unintentionally say a wrong word in place of a similar sounding word? They may say it in all seriousness, but the result easily makes their listeners laugh.
For example, instead of saying that someone is the pinnacle of excellence, you might mistakenly say “pineapple of excellence.”
Although often used unwittingly, when used intentionally, such as in comedy writing, malapropisms can have quite a humorous effect.
What Is a Malapropism?
A malapropism, also known as a malaprop or Dogberryism, refers to the use of an incorrect word instead of a word that sounds similar, which results in a nonsensical and humorous line.
The term malapropism is derived from the French term mal à propos, which means inappropriate.
In Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals, he featured a character named Mrs. Malaprop, who constantly used the wrong words, unknowingly creating a comic effect. This play has the first recorded use of the word malapropism.
Some of the malapropisms Mrs. Malaprop used are shown below, set in bold and with the corresponding correct term in parentheses beside it:
- “O, he will dissolve (resolve) the mystery!”
- “… she might reprehend (comprehend) the true meaning of what she is saying.”
- “… she’s as headstrong as an allegory (alligator) on the banks of the Nile.”
- But the point we would request of you is, that you will promise to forget this fellow—to illiterate (obliterate) him, I say, quite from your memory.
- “Oh! it gives me the hydrostatics (hysterics) to such a degree.”
- “I am sorry to say, Sir Anthony, that my affluence (influence) over my niece is very small.”
- “…behold, this very day, I have interceded (intercepted) another letter from the fellow;”
- “Sure, if I reprehend (apprehend) anything in this world it is the use of my oracular (vernacular) tongue, and a nice derangement (arrangement) of epitaphs (epithets)!”
Function of Malapropism
Although malapropisms can be an honest mistake, some writers or speakers use them intentionally to add a touch of humor to their words.
Writers also use them to portray the innocence of children, such as in the case of A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh. For example, in two different chapters, Milne tells how Christopher Robin led an “expotition” (“expedition”) to the North Pole, and how Piglet meets a “Heffalump” (“elephant”).
In To Kill A Mockingbird, author Harper Lee uses malapropism to show the immaturity of his main characters. In Chapter 8, where narrator Scout and her older brother Jem are reprimanded for building a snowman:
“I don’t care what you do, as long as you do something,” said Atticus. “You can’t go around making caricatures of the neighbors.”
“Ain’t a characterture (caricature),” said Jem. “It looks just like him.”
Examples of Malapropism in Literature
Here are some examples of malapropism in literature:
Example #1. From The Story Girl by L.M. Montgomery
“Long ago, when Judy Pineau was young,” said the Story Girl, “she was hired with Mrs. Elder Frewen—the first Mrs. Elder Frewen. Mrs. Frewen had been a school-teacher, and she was very particular as to how people talked, and the grammar they used. And she didn’t like anything but refined words. One very hot day she heard Judy Pineau say she was ‘all in a sweat.’ Mrs. Frewen was greatly shocked, and said, ‘Judy, you shouldn’t say that. It’s horses that sweat. You should say you are in a perspiration.’ Well, Judy promised she’d remember, because she liked Mrs. Frewen and was anxious to please her. Not long afterwards Judy was scrubbing the kitchen floor one morning, and when Mrs. Frewen came in Judy looked up and said, quite proud over using the right word, ‘Oh, Mees Frewen, ain’t it awful hot? I declare I’m all in a Presbyterian (perspiration).’”
Example #2. From Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
One word, sir: our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended (apprehended) two aspicious (suspicious) persons, and we would have them this morning examined before your worship.
Example #3. From Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
It’s because it warn’t intended for any of us to come but Tom,” he says; “but I begged and begged, and at the last minute she let me come, too; so, coming down the river, me and Tom thought it would be a first-rate surprise for him to come here to the house first, and for me to by and by tag along and drop in, and let on to be a stranger. But it was a mistake, Aunt Sally. This ain’t no healthy place for a stranger to come.”
“No—not impudent whelps, Sid. You ought to had your jaws boxed; I hain’t been so put out since I don’t know when. But I don’t care, I don’t mind the terms—I’d be willing to stand a thousand such jokes to have you here. Well, to think of that performance! I don’t deny it, I was most putrified (petrified) with astonishment when you give me that smack.”
Example #4. From The Borrowers by Mary Norton
The boy sat thoughtfully on his haunches, chewing a blade of grass. “Borrowing,” he said after a while. “Is that what you call it?”
“What else would you call it?” asked Arrietty.
“I’d call it stealing.”
Arrietty laughed. She really laughed. “But we are Borrowers,” she explained, “like you’re a—a Human Bean (Human Being) or whatever it’s called. We’re part of the house. You might as well say that the fire-grate steals the coal from the coal-scuttle.”
Examples of Malapropisms in Comics
Malapropisms are often found in comic strips, especially ones that feature children.
Example #1. From Family Circle by Bil Keane
Example #2. From One Big Happy by Rick Detorie
Real Life Examples of Malapropisms
Note: The correct word is in brackets.
- “Texas has a lot of electrical votes.” [electoral] —Yogi Berra
- “I’m fading into Bolivian.” [oblivion] —Mike Tyson
- “This is unparalyzed in the state’s history.” [unparalleled] —Gib Lewis, Speaker of the House, Texas
- “If I don’t want to serve someone, that’s my provocative.” [prerogative] —Lloyd Bracey’s landlord
- “… Alcoholics Unanimous.” [Anonymous]—Richard J. Daley, former Chicago Mayor
- “… lavatories of innovation and democracy.” [laboratories]—Rick Perry, Texas Governor
- “It is beyond my apprehension.” [comprehension] —Danny Ozark, baseball team manager
- “Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child. [the bond] —Dan Quayle, Vice President
- “Be sure and put some of those neutrons on it.” [croutons] —Mike Smith, ordering a salad at a restaurant
George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States, was often teased for the many malapropisms in his public speeches.
This has resulted in malapropisms also being known as “Bushisms” in the United States. Instead of belittling the man, though, his ability to laugh at his errors has endeared him to many.
What Is the Difference Between a Spoonerism and a Malapropism?
Both malapropism and spoonerism can occur unconsciously or consciously as an effort at comedy. But they have a key difference.
A malapropism is the use of the wrong word that sounds similar to the correct one. Spoonerism, on the other hand, is interchanging only certain sounds in two words within a phrase, which results in a funny effect.
For example, instead of saying, “Is it customary to kiss the bride?” Dr. Spooner (the Oxford minister known for this gaffe and after whom spoonerism is named) said, “Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride?”
Using Malapropisms in Your Writing
Malapropisms, when used correctly (and intentionally), can add a level of humor to your writing.
Note down malapropisms as you come across them in real life, or try coming up with some of your own.
Have you heard or read any funny malapropisms lately? Share them with us in the comments below!
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