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Malapropism

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English Literature

Do you ever find yourself searching for a word like ‘historical’ and find yourself saying ‘hysterical’ instead? You’ve just used a malapropism. It can be funny, or embarrassing, and it happens to pretty much everyone! Have you wondered, though, what the function of malapropism is in a literary text? Why do authors deliberately make these 'mistakes' in their word choices?

Malapropism: Meaning

A malapropism happens when one word is mistakenly used instead of another - usually because it sounds similar, yet has a different meaning. This can be accidental, or deliberate (for humorous effect).

Origin of Malapropism

The origin of malapropism is French - Mal à propos, meaning inappropriate.

Mrs Malaprop was the name Richard Brinsley Sheridan gave his character in The Rivals (1775), as she continuously mixes words up. Gradually over time, the handy reference to a funny character in a comedy evolved into ‘malapropism’.

There are classical malapropisms and temporary or accidental ones. Classical malapropisms happen because the speaker genuinely confuses meaning with form; for example, Mrs Malaprop is self-educated, and genuinely believes ‘pineapple’ is the correct word for ‘pinnacle’.

Temporary slips of the tongue occur because of memory glitches or association of ideas (we know the word we want and our brains grasp the one that sounds closest).

Examples of Malapropism

Mrs. Malaprop (The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan)

In Sheridan’s The Rivals, Mrs Malaprop is the aunt of Lydia Languish, and also her guardian. She gets very involved in the affairs of the young lovers in the play, and uses a lot of malapropisms in her speech (which is why she is called Mrs Malaprop).

At one point she is explaining to Sir Anthony (father of Lydia’s suitor Jack) how she thinks young women should be educated (the words in bold are malapropisms):

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…

(The Rivals, Act I, scene ii)

In her speech Mrs Malaprop has confused the following:

  • supercilious with superficial
  • geometry with geography
  • contagious with continental
  • orthodoxy with orthography
  • reprehend with comprehend

Mrs Malatrop is arranging with Sir Anthony for his son to visit Lydia as a potential suitor and says: ‘…I hope you will represent her to the captain as an object not altogether illegible.’ She doesn’t really mean that Lydia should be hard to read (like a book). Instead, she has confused the word with ‘ineligible’ or ‘a suitable potential partner’.

Note: Although Mrs Malaprop confuses many words, there are also several occasions when in a sense she hits the spot - Lydia may be hiding her feelings and indeed be hard to read.

Examples of Malapropism: William Shakespeare

The malapropism did not begin with Sheridan. Shakespeare also indulged in this kind of wordplay in his comedies and even in his more serious plays:

Bottom the weaver is one of the main comic elements in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and one of the ways Shakespeare makes him funny is to give him lines with malapropisms.

For example, when Bottom and the other Athenian craftsmen are arranging to rehearse their play in the forest, Bottom advises:

We will meet; and there we may rehearse most obscenely and courageously.”

(A Midsummer Nights Dream, Act 1, sc.2)

Bottom mistakes ‘obscenely’ for ‘obscurely’.

Again later, during the rehearsal, Bottom recites: ‘Thisby, the flowers of odious savours sweet,—’

(A Midsummer Nights Dream, Act 3, sc.1)

He is corrected by Quince: ‘odious’ should have been ‘odorous’.

In Twelfth Night, Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch comes in drunk to announce a visitor. When Olivia questions his condition, he mistakes ‘lethargy’ for ‘lechery’:

Olivia. Cousin, cousin, how have you come so early by this lethargy?

Sir Toby Belch. Lechery! I defy lechery. There's one at the gate.

(Twelfth Night, Act 1, scene 5)

In Romeo and Juliet, the nurse becomes the butt of youthful pranks. In Act 2, she comes looking for Romeo with a message from Juliet and in her haste mistakes ‘confidence’ for ‘conference’:

Nurse. if you be he, sir, I desire some confidence with you.

Benvolio. She will indite him to some supper.

(Romeo & Juliet, Act 2, scene 4)

Benvolio extends the joke by adding a malapropism of his own: indite (compose) instead of invite to supper.

In Much Ado About Nothing (1598), Constable Dogberry is given so many lines with malapropisms in them that the term ‘Dogberryism’ has also come into being.

Malapropism: Further Examples

Look at the example below from Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742), in a scene where Mrs Slipslop is angry with Joseph. What words does Mrs Slipslop really mean, do you think?

Barbarous monster! how have I deserved that my passion should be resulted and treated with ironing?"

(Joseph Andrews, chapter 6)

‘Resulted’ sounds like ‘insulted’. ‘Ironing’ seems very likely a malapropism of ‘irony’.

Accidental (or ‘classical’) malapropisms happen to people every day. This includes celebrities and politicians. One US president became so notorious for his malapropisms that they were given a name of their own: ’Bushisms’.

'The law I sign today directs new funds and new focus to the task of collecting vital intelligence on terrorist threats and on weapons of mass production.' (mass production = mass destruction)

G.W.Bush, Washington, D.C., Nov. 27, 2002

'I got a lot of Ph.D.-types and smart people around me who come into the Oval Office and say, "Mr. President, here's what's on my mind." And I listen carefully to their advice. But having gathered the device, I decide, you know, I say, "This is what we're going to do."' (device = advice)

G.W.Bush, Lancaster, Pa., Oct. 3, 2007

'And there is distrust in Washington. I am surprised, frankly, at the amount of distrust that exists in this town. And I'm sorry it's the case, and I'll work hard to try to elevate it.'— (elevate = eradicate)

G.W.Bush, Speaking on National Public Radio, Jan. 29, 2007

‘I do not want to run the risk of ruining what is a lovely recession’ (recession = reception)

G.W.Bush (Newsweek,1992)

Typical malapropisms you might hear in everyday speech:

  • hysterical - historical
  • pigment - figment
  • distinguish - extinguish
  • comprehension - apprehension
  • purpose - porpoise

Can you think of any others you may have heard people use?

Now look at these two quotes and see if you can spot the difference:

  • Mrs. Malaprop: ‘There, sir, an attack upon my language! what do you think of that?—an aspersion upon my parts of speech! Was ever such a brute! Sure, if I reprehend any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!’
  • ‘You have deliberately tasted two worms and must leave by the town drain.’

Malapropism is like a case of mistaken identity: two words look alike but have different meanings, so mixing them can lead to some interesting misunderstandings. This is rather different from mixing the initial letters and syllables of words up, which would be a Spoonerism.

Difference between Malapropism and Spoonerism

Dr. William A. Spooner (1844 - 1930) was a Warden of New College. He had the reputation for being absent-minded and for mixing up the syllables of words he used (this is also called metathesis).

'Kinquering congs their titles take'. (Conquering kings their titles take)

He was said to have told off a student once with the following :

You have deliberately tasted two worms and must leave by the town drain.’

(You have deliberately wasted two terms and must leave by the down train.)

A.T.Corke, Spooneriana, The Strand Magazine, 1911

According to one myth, he was once seen running down a street on a windy day, chasing his hat and saying:

Will no one pat my hiccup?’ (Will no one pick my hat up?)

Julian Huxley, Living in a Revolution, 1944

Many well-known spoonerisms attributed to Spooner can be traced to a 1911 article in The Strand Magazine titled “Spooneriana” by A. T. Corke. However, it is unlikely Dr Spooner really came up with even half of the spoonerisms quoted, which include:

  1. Arriving at a railway station with ‘rags and a bug’ (bags and a rug).
  2. Ordering ‘a bath of milk and a glass bun’ (a glass of milk and a Bath bun).
  3. Addressing a group of farmers as ‘tons of soil’ (sons of toil)

Malapropism Causes

It is generally believed that people accidentally use one word for another because of the similarity in sound. What causes someone to use a malapropism accidentally may be down to fatigue, or talking too quickly for the brain to process the vocabulary it needs. The speaker may be saying one thing while thinking of another.

Research suggests that malapropisms also happen because of the way the brain stores vocabulary, sorting words according to frequency of use as well as similarity. So when the speaker is tired or irritated, the phonological part of their brain is more likely to mix up form as well as sound. Frequently mixing words up into malapropisms may also be a symptom of anxiety.

Eggcorn or Acorn?

Another kind of wordplay that is similar to malapropism is the ‘eggcorn’ - a word or phrase where a part is changed (sometimes deliberately) to give a similar, often ironic or humorous, meaning to the original phrase.

  • social leopard (= social leper; the leper becomes a predator rather than an outcast or victim)
  • Pass mustard (= pass muster: the standard just got a little hotter….)
  • Old wise tale (= old wives' tale: old wives should be experienced enough to be wise anyway)

The eggcorn is similar to a malapropism, except that it has a more logical association, whereas malapropism may simply look like another word (there will be no logical connection in meaning).

Why is it called an eggcorn? Well, think of its shape, it looks a little like an egg. But it isn’t. It’s an eggshaped nut. Called an acorn…

Malapropism - Key Takeaways

  • A malapropism happens when one word is mistakenly used instead of another.
  • Classical malapropisms happen because the speaker genuinely confuses meaning with form.
  • Temporary malapropisms are slips of the tongue, owing to tiredness or fast speech.
  • The origin of malapropism is French - Mal à propos, meaning inappropriate.
  • Malapropism is when two words look alike but have different meanings, while spoonerism is when the initial letters and syllables of words are mixed up.
  • Someone may use a malapropism accidentally because of fatigue, or talking quickly, or because of anxiety.

Malapropism

A malapropism happens when one word is mistakenly used instead of another with a different meaning

Writers may intentionally use malapropisms for comic effect in their work.

A malapropism is a noun: ‘Mrs Malapropism is so called because she uses many malapropisms in her speech.’

‘Barbarous monster! how have I deserved that my passion should be resulted and treated with ironing?’ (Fielding, Joseph Andrews)


‘I do not want to run the risk of ruining what is a lovely recession’ (reception) (G.W.Bush) etc

A malapropism happens when the speaker confuses one word with another in meaning, while a spoonerism happens when the speaker accidentally swaps the syllables of two or more words

Final Malapropism Quiz

Question

What is malapropism?

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Answer

A malapropism happens when one word is mistakenly used instead of another with a different meaning.

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Question

What is malapropism used for?

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Answer

Writers may intentionally use malapropisms for comic effect in their work.

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Question

How do you use malapropism in a sentence?


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Answer

Malapropism is a noun: ‘Mrs Malaproopism is so-called because she uses many malapropisms in her speech.’

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Question

What is an example of malapropism?

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Answer

‘Barbarous monster! how have I deserved that my passion should be resulted and treated with ironing?’ (Fielding, Joseph Andrews)

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Question

Complete: Mrs … was the name Sheridan gave his character in The … (1775), as she continuously … words up.

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Answer

Mrs Malaprop was the name Sheridan gave his character in The Rivals (1775), as she continuously mixes words up.

Show question

Question

Complete: … malapropisms happen because the speaker genuinely confuses … with ….


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Answer

Classical malapropisms happen because the speaker genuinely confuses meaning with form.

Show question

Question

Complete: Temporary … of the tongue occur because of … glitches or … of ideas.

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Answer

Temporary slips of the tongue occur because of memory glitches or association of ideas.

Show question

Question

True or False? In Sheridan’s School for Scandal, Mrs Malaprop is the sister of Lydia Languish, and also her guardian.

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Answer

False: In Sheridan’s The Rivals, Mrs Malaprop is the aunt of Lydia Languish, and also her guardian.

Show question

Question

Choose: Mrs Malatrop is arranging with Sir Anthony for his son to visit Lydia as a potential suitor and hopes Lydia will not be ‘ altogether illegible.’ She has confused the word with 

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Answer

Illiterate


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Question

Choose: In MIdsummer’s Night Dream, Bottom confuses ‘obscenely’ with

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Answer

obviously

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Question

True or False? The origin of Malapropism is Italian - Mal a propos, meaning inappropriate.

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Answer

False:The origin of Malapropism is French - Mal a propos, meaning inappropriate.

Show question

Question

True or False? Research suggests that malapropisms also happen because of the way the brain stores vocabulary

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Answer

True.

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