M is for Malapropism

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

Malapropism is unintentionally substituting a similar-sounding word for an intended word, producing a comic effect.

A math teacher might tell the class, “Fix the addiction problems” instead of “fix the ADDITION problems.”

William Shakespeare used this literary device before it had the name “malapropism.” He wrote in the 1500’s, and many of his comedies, including “The Merchant of Venice,” “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and most famously “Much Ado About Nothing,” incorporated the misuse of words. Dogberry from “Much Ado” used the device enough to have it named after him. (Dogberryism)

In 1775, the speech of Mrs. Malaprop from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comic play “The Rivals” was speckled with misused words, to the delight of audiences. Her name derives from the word which translates from French as “inappropriate” or “poorly placed.”

Malapropism causes comedic confusion, misunderstanding, and amusement. By incorporating it into a character’s speech, a writer can present comic relief by poking fun at someone with less education or with aspirations toward grandeur.

According to “The Oxford English Dictionary,” its first, official recorded use is in 1630.

Laurel and Hardy used the device in their skits, including referring to a “nervous shakedown” instead of a breakdown. Archie Bunker misnamed Orthodox Jews “Off-the-docks Jews.” Rachel in “The Poisonwood Bible” and characters in CS Lewis’s  works also indulge in malaprops.

Media covers the inadvertent slips of public figures with seeming glee. A wonderful example of malapropism occurred in “New Scientist” magazine. A scientist referred to his colleague as a “vast suppository of information,” and when he tried to correct the printed mistake, he apologized for his “Miss-Marpleism.” “New Scientist” presented the idea that the incident might have been the first malapropism for the word malapropism.

Malaprops differ from making up a word (which is called neologism). Eggcorns (also called oronyms) also substitute a word with similar sounds, but the effect is plausible within the context. “Old-timer’s disease” for “Alzheimer’s” is an eggcorn.  Eggcorns sometimes replace an unfamiliar word with a more common, modern word, as in “baited breath” for “bated breath.”

With so many similar words in the language, malapropism is a simple mistake. In the hands of a Moliere, these errors make great comedy.