I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Origin of the Term
Mrs. Malaprop was a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 comedy The Rivals. The good lady was prone to using words out of context. Her famous line with corrections in brackets is “Sure, if I reprehend (apprehend) any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular (vernacular) tongue, and a nice derangement (arrangement) of epitaphs (epithets).”
Mrs. Malaprop also gave us “Illiterate (obliterate) him quite from your memory” and “She’s as headstrong as an allegory (alligator) on the banks of the Nile."
The affliction came to be named after Mrs. Malaprop and it’s with us today.
First Instances of Malapropisms
Before Sheridan created his vocabulary-challenged character another renowned playwright used the device for comedic effect.
In Much Ado about Nothing (1599), William Shakespeare wrote in the character Dogberry, a bumbling village policeman. Dogberry’s contribution to the genre is this line “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons . . . ” The officer of the law was having trouble distinguishing between apprehended and comprehended as well as auspicious and suspicious.
The word malapropos seems to appear in print for the first time in 1630. It was used to indicate something that was inappropriate or out of place; the opposite of the word apropos.
“This is unparalyzed in the state’s history.”
— Gib Lewis, Texas Speaker of the House
A Comedic Standby
Writers never place malaprops into the mouths of serious characters; they are always used to portray people as unintelligent and uneducated. It helps the device if the character can be made to look pompous as well.
Charles Dickens used the malaprop to undermine the credibility of Mr. Bumble the Beadle; as if his name wasn’t enough to get the job done. The unfortunate gentleman in charge of the parish orphanage in Oliver Twist announced that “We name our fondlings in alphabetical order.”
Stan Laurel was given the job of delivering malaprops in the 1933 movie Sons of the Desert in which he describes Oliver Hardy as suffering from a nervous shakedown (breakdown). He calls the chief honcho of the fraternal order to which they belong the Exhausted Leader.
The Archie Bunker character in All in the Family (1971-79) threw in a few malapropisms. A house of ill repute became a house of ill refute and orthodox Jews turned into off-the-docks Jews.
Of course, these are all fictional uses of malaprops. They become even more hilarious and damaging to reputations when they crop up in real life.
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Tony Abbott was Australia’s hapless prime minister from 2013 to 2015. As he campaigned for high office he said “No one, however smart, however well-educated, however experienced . . . is the suppository of all wisdom.” Bummer of a speech Tony, but the Aussies are a forgiving lot so they elected his party into office anyway. But, he didn’t last long; his only policies seemed to be to pick fights with people and insult them. Sound familiar?
The British Conservative Party’s Andrew Davies was a strong supporter of severing connections to the European Union, the so-called Brexit. Only in Mr. Davies’s words it came out as “we have to make breakfast a success.”
The former Mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, tripped over this tongue a few times. He called a tandem bicycle a tantrum bicycle and Alcoholics Anonymous became Alcoholics Unanimous. And, he famously said “The police are not here to create disorder, they’re here to preserve disorder.” That’s not really a malapropism but it’s worth another outing.
“He was a man of great statue.”
— Thomas Menino, Boston mayor
Former Texas Governor Rick Perry and later a member of the Cabinet brain trust that advised Donald Trump is another malaprop deliverer. He spoke of the states as the “lavatories of innovation and democracy.”
He famously said in a campaign for the presidency that he was going to eliminate three government departments and then could not remember which ones were going to get the ax.
But, that’s a different issue, one that Mike Tyson can relate to. The heavyweight boxer had just lost a fight with Lennox Lewis when he announced that “I might fade into Bolivian.” Too many blows to the head Mike?
“Natural gas is hemispheric . . . because it is a product that we can find in our neighborhoods.”
— George W. Bush
Similar but not Quite the Same
There’s another verbal tic that is related to malapropisms that causes embarrassment to sufferers. It’s called the “eggcorn” and Merriam-Webster tells us it is “a word or phrase that sounds like and is mistakenly used in a seemingly logical or plausible way for another word or phrase.”
- Alzheimer's disease—Old-timer’s disease.
- All intents and purposes—All intensive purposes.
- Maiden name—Mating name.
- Bonfire—Bondfire (There might have been a few of those around Wall Street in 2008.)
- Lesser of two evils—Less of two equals.
- Wrought-iron fence—Rot-iron fence.
The New Scientist in 2005 reported on a malapropism correction that was its own malapropism. Apparently, one worker did a Tony Abbott and said a fellow worker was “a vast suppository of information.” Recognizing later that he was speaking out of his backside he tried to correct himself by apologizing for his “Miss-Marple-ism.”
Yogi Berra, the New York Yankees legend, was famous for his slips of the tongue. Here’s one that qualifies as a malaprop, “I’m not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did.” Most of his other verbal somersaults might best be described as Yogiisms:
- “You can observe a lot by watching.”
- “You wouldn’t have won if we’d beaten you.”
- “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
- “I can answer that in two words: im-possible!”
- “I never said most of the things I said.”
- “The Curious Origin of the Word ‘Malapropism.’ ” Interesting Literature, March 15, 2016.
- “Mrs. Malaprop and the Origin of Malapropisms.” Wade Bradford, ThoughtCo, March 18, 2017.
- “Here Are 100 ‘Eggcorns’ That We Say Pass Mustard.” Mark Memmott, NPR, June 1, 2015.
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.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on January 18, 2019:
Hi Liz. The genius Tommy Cooper did the same thing with his "failed" magic tricks. It took enormous conjuring skill to pull it off.
Liz Westwood from UK on January 18, 2019:
I know I am guilty of the occasional malapropism, especially when I am tired. But I think it is a great skill on the part of a writer/playwright to write in consistent malapropisms for a character. I see it a little along the lines of a British comedian, Les Dawson, who often did sketches where he played a piano using the wrong notes. It was said at the time that playing all the wrong notes demanded more skill than playing the correct ones.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 17, 2019:
This is really a fun topic. I will say I learned and read a lot by reading. Haha... I did enoy your article.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on January 17, 2019:
Thanks for the education and entertainment in this article. The malapropism is even funnier when we do not catch the mistake instantly, but recognize it later. Enjoyable read!