Definition of Malapropism
A malapropism is an incorrect word used accidentally in place of another word with a similar sound. Malapropisms can be humorous because they give rise to nonsensical statements. For example, the common phrase “for all intents and purposes” is often turned into the malapropism “for all intensive purposes.” This phrase is somewhat nonsensical, though in this case it’s not humorous because it is so often said incorrectly.
The word malapropism comes from a character named Mrs. Malaprop in the 1775 play The Rivals, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Mrs. Malaprop was a humorous character in the play who often used incorrect words in her dialogue. Sheridan likely took that name from the French phrase mal à propos, which means “poorly placed.” Lord Byron was the first to use the definition of malapropism officially in 1814, taking it from Sheridan’s play. Malapropisms are also sometimes called acyrologia or Dogberryisms, based off the Shakespeare character Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing.
Difference Between Malapropism, Spoonerism, Eggcorn, Freudian Slip, and Mondegreen
There are many different types of errors in speech. Here are the key differences between malapropisms, Spoonerisms, eggcorns, Freudian slips, and mondegreens:
- Malapropism: Substitution an incorrect word for one that sounds very similar. For example, substituting the word “tender” for “tenor” in the following sentence: “I didn’t like the tender of that conversation.”
- Spoonerism: Switching the vowels or consonants in two words in close proximity, either unintentionally as an error or intentionally for humorous purposes. For example: “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”
- Eggcorn: An intentional substitution of a similar sounding word that still makes sense. For example, “old-timer’s disease” for “Alzheimer’s disease” or “mating name” for “maiden name.”
- Freudian Slip: An unintentional utterance that may reveal something in the speaker’s unconscious. For example, if someone wanted to say, “I really love chocolate,” but instead said “I really love Charlie,” this might hint at an unconscious desire.
- Mondegreen: A misheard word or words in song lyrics. For example, some might misheard Elton John’s “Hold me closer, tiny dancer” as “Hold me closer, Tony Danza.”
Common Examples of Malapropism
We say malapropisms all the time in every day speech. For example, if you were going to your friends’ house for dinner named Jeff and Deb, you might accidentally say you were going to Deaf and Jeb’s house. There are also many famous people who have said malapropisms and get lampooned in the media for having said them. Here are some examples of malapropisms from famous people:
- “I’m going to put people in my place, so when the history of this administration is written at least there’s an authoritarian voice saying exactly what happened.”—George Bush (substituted “authoritarian” for “authoritative”)
- “He was a man of great statue.”—Thomas Menino, Boston mayor (substituted “statue” for “stature”)
- “It is beyond my apprehension.”—Danny Ozark, baseball team manager (substituted “apprehension” for “comprehension)
- “This is unparalyzed in the state’s history.”—Gib Lewis, Texas Speaker of the House (substituted “unparalyzed” for “unparalled”)
- “I’m fading into Bolivian.”—Mike Tyson (substituted “Bolivian” for “oblivion”)
Some comedians also use malapropism examples in an intentional way in order to be humorous, such as in the following quotes:
- “I’m not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did.”—Yogi Berra (substituted “encyclopedia” for “cycle”)
- “I am the president of the Loyal Society for the Relief of Suffers from Pismronunciation, for the relief of people who can’t say their worms correctly, or who use the wrong worms entirely, so that other people cannot underhand a bird they are spraying.”—Ronnie Barker (several malapropism examples, such as “worms” and “birds” for “words”)
- “I think he’s suffering from a nervous shakedown.”—Stan Laurel (of Laurel and Hardy, substituted “shakedown” for “breakdown:)
Significance of Malapropism in Literature
Malapropism is an error in speech. Therefore, malapropisms are generally only found not found in poems and novels because someone would have caught the error. Instead, they are found in plays when the playwright wants to show that the character committing the malapropism is somewhat foolish. You would not find examples of malapropisms in most tragedies, for example, and are generally a comedic tool in plays. While not everyone who says malapropisms in real life is uneducated or foolish, when found in plays malapropism examples help characterize someone as not to be taken too seriously.
Examples of Malapropism in Literature
DOGBERRY: Dost thou not suspect my place? Dost thou not suspect my years? O that he were here to write me down an ass! But masters, remember that I am an ass. Though it be not written down, yet forget not that I am an ass. No, thou villain, thou art full of piety, as shall be proved upon thee by good witness. I am a wise fellow, and which is more, an officer, and which is more, a householder, and which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina, and one that knows the law, go to . . . and one that hath two gowns, and everything handsome about him. Bring him away. O that I had been writ down an ass!
(Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare)
The character of Dogberry in William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is an object of ridicule from beginning to end in this comedy. He says so many malapropisms that some people call this type of speech error a Dogberryism, in honor of his foolishness. Dogberry is a night watchman who is overconfident about his own importance, and provides comic relief in the play. In this excerpt from the play, Dogberry substitutes the words “suspect” for “respect” and “piety” for “impiety.”
MRS. MALAPROP: Sir, you overpower me with good breeding. He is the very pineapple of politeness! You are not ignorant, captain, that this giddy girl has somehow contrived to fix her affections on a beggarly, strolling, eavesdropping ensign, whom none of us have seen, and nobody knows anything of.
(The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan)
Mrs. Malaprop is the other character in literature who most famously committed malapropisms and, of course, lent her name to this phenomena. Most of her lines in the play contain at least one malapropism. Similar to Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, Mrs. Malaprop is quite impressed with herself and regards herself a particularly good scholar of the English language. Thus, her frequent mistakes are all the more hilarious. In this short excerpt, Mrs. Malaprop uses the phrase “pineapple of politeness” instead of “pinnacle of politeness.”
CAPTAIN JACK BOYLE: I’m telling you… Joxer… th’ whole worl’s… in a terr…ible state o’… chassis!
(Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey)
Irish playwright Sean O’Casey set his 1924 play Juno and the Paycock in working class tenements of Dublin. The play centers around the Boyle family, the patriarch of which is Captain Jack Boyle, who prefers to complain to his friend Joxer at the bar rather than look for work. He often repeats his assertion that the whole world is in a terrible state of “chassis,” rather than “chaos.” This has a tragicomic effect, as they end up being the words that end the play after which Jack loses his final sixpence.
Test Your Knowledge of Malapropism
1. Which of the following statements is the best malapropism definition?
A. A misheard song lyric.
B. The substitution of an incorrect word for one that sounds similar.
C. An intentional substitution of an incorrect word that is still contextually appropriate.
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2. Which of the following words is not an synonym for malapropism?
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3. In which of the following pieces of literature would you most likely find an example of malapropism?
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3. Which of the following quotes from Mrs. Malaprop is, indeed, an example of malapropism?
There, Sir Anthony, there sits the deliberate simpleton who wants to disgrace her family, and lavish herself on a fellow not worth a shilling.
Few think how a little knowledge becomes a gentlewoman! Men have no sense now but for the worthless flower of beauty!
I am sure I have done everything in my power since I exploded the affair; long ago I laid my positive conjunctions on her never to think on the fellow again. I have since laid Sir Anthony’s preposition before her; but, I am sorry to say, she seems resolved to decline every particle that I enjoin her.
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