Malapropism

Malapropism Definition

Malapropism, from French mal a propos (inappropriate), is a use of an incorrect word in place of a similar sounding word that results in a nonsensical and humorous expression.

The word malapropism comes from “Mrs. Malaprop”, a character in Sheridan’s comedy “The Rivals”, who has a habit of replacing words with incorrect and absurd utterances producing a humorous effect. A miss-speech is considered malapropism when it sounds similar to the word it replaces but has an entirely different meaning. For instance, replacing acute by obtuse is not a malapropism because both words have a contrasting meanings but do not sound similar. Using obtuse  for abstruse, on the other hand, is a malapropism, as there is a difference in meanings and both words sound similar. These characteristics makes malapropism different from other errors in speech such as eggcorns and spoonerisms.

Common Malapropism Examples

Malapropism is a common phenomenon in our daily life. We find some hilarious Malapropism examples being quoted in the media.

Example #1

New Scientist, a magazine, reports one of its employees calling his colleague “a suppository (i.e. repository) of knowledge”. The magazine further reports the worker apologized for his “Miss Marple-ism (i.e. Malapropism)”.

Example #2

Richard J. Daley, the former mayor of Chicago, is said to have called “tandem bicycle” as “tantrum bicycle” and also have incorrectly used “Alcoholics Unanimous” instead of “Alcoholics Anonymous”.

Example #3

Bertie Ahern, the former Irish Taoiseach, is said to have given a warning to his country against “upsetting the apple tart (i.e., apple cart) of his country’s economic success”.

Common Malapropism Examples:

  • Cheer up; I predicate (predict) final victory.
  • His capacity for hard liquor is incredulous (incredible).
  • This does not portend (pretend) to be a great work of art.
  • Fortuitously (fortunately) for her, she won the sweepstakes.

Examples of Malapropism from Literature

In literature, malapropism is employed to create humorous effects.

Example #1

In the “Rivals”, Sheridan introduces a character “Mrs. Malaprop” who habitually uses words which mean quite the opposite to the words she intended to use but which have similar sounds to the words she replaces. It becomes a great source of humorous effect in the play. For example in Act III Scene 3, she tells Captain Absolute:

“Sure, if I reprehend anything in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!”

In the above passage, she comically replaces apprehend by reprehend, vernacular by oracular, arrangement by derangement and epithets by epitaph.

Some other funny examples of malapropism in the same play are “illiterate (i.e. obliterate) him quite from your memory” and “she’s as headstrong as an allegory (alligator).”

Example #2

William Shakespeare uses malapropism in his plays as well. Look at the following example of malapropism uttered by Constable Dogberry in Act III Scene 5 of “Much Ado About Nothing”:

“Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons.”

Notice the use of comprehended for apprehended and auspicious for suspicious.

Similarly, an instance of malapropism can be observed in Act I, Scene 3 of “Twelfth Night”. Sir Toby Belch says:

“By this hand, they are scoundrels and subtractors
that say so of him. Who are they?”

The malapropism here is “subtractors,” which should have been “detractors.” Yet another example comes from the same character in Act I Scene 5 of the same play:

OLIVIA: Cousin, cousin, how have you come so early by this
lethargy?

SIR TOBY BELCH: Lechery! I defy lechery.

Here, the use of “lechery” instead of “lethargy” is a malapropism.

Example #3

In chapter 33 of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Aunt Sally can be spotted using a malapropism. She says:

“I was most putrified with astonishment,”

Here, the use of the word putrified is a malapropism and it seems she was thinking of petrified.

Function of Malapropism

Although it is considered an error in speech, malapropism is a great source of humor in both everyday life as well as literature. In daily life, malapropisms are often unintentional but writers introduce malapropism in their literary works intentionally to produce comic effects. It ensures the attention of the readers, as it inserts an extra element of interest in a literary piece. This is the reason why the characters using hilarious malapropisms are often well-known.

2 comments for “Malapropism

  1. John
    December 17, 2015 at 8:48 am

    Quite helpful. Thank you.

  2. Warren Penniman
    January 31, 2016 at 10:02 pm

    So few people have ever heard of and thereby don’t understand what malapropism really is. More often than not, it’s user is trying to project a level of intellect or sophistication. Just like it’s namesake, Mrs. Malaprop.

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