I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Idioms and aphorisms decorate our language wonderfully, but they can also be a trap for the unwary when a couple of them get mashed up with another. Mostly, these are called mixed metaphors, but there is a sub-category known as a malaphor or an idiom blend. So, beware the dreaded malaphor; it lurks in the recesses of the mind ready to strike unexpectedly and usually to hilarious and embarrassing effect.
The Origin of the Malaphor
Author Lawrence Harrison gave us the word malaphor in a Washington Post article in 1976. He blended two words, “malapropism” and “metaphor.”
The malapropism is the misuse of a word. So we had the amusing instance of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott intending, we assume, to use the word “repository” but instead saying “No one, however smart, however well-educated, however experienced . . . is the suppository of all wisdom.” Quite the bummer of a mistake.
The metaphor is used to compare two unlike things. In Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck gave us “Well, you keep away from her, cause she’s a rattrap if I ever seen one.”
And, poet Bruce Lansky gave us this lovely metaphor rhyme:
“Poor as a church mouse.
strong as an ox,
cute as a button,
smart as a fox.
“Thin as a toothpick,
white as a ghost,
fit as a fiddle,
dumb as a post.
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“Bald as an eagle,
neat as a pin,
proud as a peacock,
ugly as sin.”
Some people seem strangely gifted at tangled eloquence that produces a profusion of jumbled sentences. They take two or more metaphors and mash them together in a word salad that can bring on giggles. It seems to be an affliction whose market has been cornered by British politicians. So, we get the following gems:
- “I don’t like it. When you open that Pandora’s box, you will find it full of Trojan horses,” spoken by Britain’s Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevan in 1948.
- “It would open up a can of worms and a legal minefield about freedom, religion and equalities legislation . . . It may open up old wounds and put people into the trenches; no one wants that.” British Member of Parliament David Burrowes in 2012.
- “I’m kickstarting a drive to get employee ownership into the bloodstream.” British MP Nick Clegg, 2012.
But surely, these are very amateurish attempts to grab the brass candle in the mixed metaphor competition. They’re going to have to do much better to knock Sir Boyle Roche (1736-1807) off his pedestal as world champion mixed metaphorist.
The Irish politician once stood in the Irish House of Commons and delivered this priceless jewel: “Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat; I see him forming in the air and darkening the sky; but I’ll nip him in the bud.”
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Malaphors: The Cream of the Litter
Apologies for the slight digression into mixed metaphors but I got steered into a blind alley without a paddle. Those linguistic hiccups were too good to ignore.
So, back to malaphors. Linguists say that there’s a subtle difference malaphors and mixed metaphors; so subtle, in fact, that they rarely seem to get around to explaining the disparity.
However, cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstader in an article in the Michigan Quarterly Review had a stab at a definition: “Malaphors are to be contrasted with mixed metaphors, in which each phrase remains intact and it is only their juxtaposition that is strange.”
It seems to the writer that mixed metaphors are combinations of complete and entirely different idioms that produce funny nonsense. On the other hand, malaphors blend parts of similar sayings to also create comical rubbish that almost sounds as if it makes sense.
Lacking a clear distinction we’ll have to take the word of those people who diligently collect malaphors that what they present are the genuine deal. We have to thank Richard Norquist (ThoughtCo), Docforce, Douglas Hofstader, and Richard Lederer for collecting these; as Norquist notes “each one a pearl worth its weight in gold.”
- The sacred cows have come home to roost with a vengeance.
- I can read him like the back of my book.
- If it ain’t rocket surgery, don’t fix it.
- You’ve opened that can of worms now lie in it.
- You are just scratching the tip of an iceberg.
- A bird in the hand is worth two with one stone.
- Burning the midnight oil at both ends.
- You hit the nail right on the nose.
- She really stuck her neck out on a limb.
- It’s all peaches and roses.
- That was a breath of relief.
- We will pull not stops unturned.
- When I saw his name in the paper, two and two just clicked.
And, that brings down the day on this bit of frivolity, so let’s call it a curtain.
- Dundrearyism is a similar verbal trip to the malaphors. It is named after a dim-witted character in Tom Taylor’s 1858 play My American Cousin. Lord Dundreary uttered such classics as “Birds of a feather gather no moss.”
- A “malapert” is a statement that is “boldly disrespectful to a person of higher standing” (Dictionary.com). For example, journalist James Reston said of U.S. President Nixon “He inherited some good instincts from his Quaker forebears but, by diligent hard work, he overcame them.”
- Malaphorisms can occur in a single word. We can thank cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstader for these examples: “It was pretty upsettling.” “Does he have any other quirkadilloes?” “This computer is completely kapunct.”
- “The Good the Bad & the Ugly.” studylib.net, undated.
- “The Top Ten: Mixed Metaphors.” John Rentoul, The Independent, March 16, 2014.
- “A Mixed Metaphor Walked into a Bar . . .” Lauren DiCecio Stevens, Inkwell, July 8, 2019.
- “Malaphors: ‘It’s as Easy as Falling off a Piece of Cake.” Alison Tunley, rosettatranslation.com, July 16, 2019.
- “What Are Malaphors?” Richard Nordquist, ThoughtCo, February 12, 2020.
- “The Big List of Malaphors.” Docforce, undated.
- “To Err is Human: To Study Error-Making is Cognitive Science.” Douglas Hofstadter, Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 28, No.2.
- “Malaphors.” Richard Lederer, malaphors.com, undated.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on May 11, 2021:
I loved this article, probably because my husband is a master of malaphors and doesn't realize he does it. My first mother in law created a masterpiece, "nostasea". She said it was a combination of nostalgia and nausea. In other words, that old stuff made her sick to her stomach.
DW Davis from Eastern NC on May 08, 2021:
Thank you for the enjoyable article. I got quite a laugh out of some of the malaphors.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on May 08, 2021:
"Mal" is a prefix that originates in Latin and indicates something that is bad - maladjusted, maltreatment, malady, etc. Malware has nothing to do with malaphor.
Ravi Rajan from Mumbai on May 08, 2021:
The world of malaphors is quite funny indeed. Thanks for sharing this wonderful trivia Rupert. One question that came to my mind - Is the word "malware" something to do with malaphors ? After both of them signify misuse in some way.
Lorna Lamon on May 08, 2021:
I enjoyed this interesting article Rupert. It's almost like piecing something together and then joining the dots. A fun read.
Misbah Sheikh from The World of Rebels. on May 07, 2021:
It was an interesting and fun read, Rupert. Thanks a lot for sharing
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 07, 2021:
I enjoyed reading this and chuckled at some of the malaphors you gave as examples.