A malapropism (also called a Dogberryism) is the use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical, often humorous utterance. An example is Yogi Berra's statement: "Texas has a lot of electrical votes," rather than "electoral votes".
The word malapropism comes ultimately from the French mal à propos meaning "inappropriate" via "Mrs. Malaprop", a character in the Richard Brinsley Sheridan comedy The Rivals (1775) who habitually misused her words. Dogberryism comes from "Officer Dogberry", the name of a character in the William Shakespeare play Much Ado About Nothing. These are the two best-known fictional characters who made this kind of error—there are many other examples. Malapropisms also occur as errors in natural speech. Malapropisms are often the subject of media attention, especially when made by politicians or other prominent individuals.
The philosopher Donald Davidson has noted that malapropisms show how complex the process is by which the brain translates thoughts into language.
The word "malapropism" (and its earlier variant, "malaprop") comes from a character named "Mrs. Malaprop" in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 play The Rivals. Mrs. Malaprop frequently misspeaks (to great comic effect) by using words which don't have the meaning she intends, but which sound similar to words that do. Sheridan presumably chose her name in humorous reference to the word malapropos, an adjective or adverb meaning "inappropriate" or "inappropriately", derived from the French phrase, mal à propos (literally "poorly placed"). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of "malapropos" in English is from 1630, and the first person known to have used the word "malaprop" in the sense of "a speech error" is Lord Byron in 1814.
An instance of speech error is called a malapropism when a word which is nonsensical or ludicrous in context, but similar in sound to what was intended, is produced.
Definitions differ somewhat in terms of the cause of the error. Some scholars include only errors that result from a temporary failure to produce the word the speaker intended. Such errors are sometimes called "Fay-Cutler malapropism", after David Fay and Anne Cutler, who described the occurrence of such errors in ordinary speech. Most definitions, however, include any actual word that is wrongly or accidentally used in place of a similar sounding, "correct" word. This broader definition is sometimes called "classical malapropism", or simply "malapropism".
For example, using obtuse [wide or dull] instead of acute [narrow or sharp] is not a malapropism; using obtuse [stupid or slow-witted] when one means abstruse [esoteric or difficult to understand] is.
Malapropisms tend to maintain the part of speech of the originally intended word. According to linguist Jean Aitchison, "The finding that word selection errors preserve their part of speech suggest that the latter is an integral part of the word, and tightly attached to it." Likewise, substitutions tend to have the same number of syllables and the same metrical structure – the same pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables – as the intended word or phrase. If the stress pattern of the malapropism differs from the intended word, unstressed syllables may be deleted or inserted; stressed syllables and the general rhythmic pattern are maintained.
Examples from fiction
The fictional Mrs. Malaprop, in Sheridan's play The Rivals, utters many malapropisms. In Act III Scene 3, she declares to Captain Absolute, "Sure, if I reprehend any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!" This nonsensical utterance might, for example, be 'corrected' to, "If I apprehend anything in this world, it is the use of my vernacular tongue, and a nice arrangement of epithets", although these are not the only words that can be substituted to produce an appropriately expressed thought in this context, and commentators have proposed other possible replacements that work just as well.
Other malapropisms spoken by Mrs. Malaprop include "illiterate him quite from your memory" (instead of 'obliterate')', and "she's as headstrong as an allegory" (instead of alligator).
Malapropisms appeared in many works before Sheridan created the character of Mrs. Malaprop. William Shakespeare used them in a number of his plays. For example, in Much Ado About Nothing, Constable Dogberry tells Governor Leonato, "Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons" (i.e., apprehended two suspicious persons) (Act 3, Scene V). And in The Merchant of Venice, Launcelot, describing Shylock, declares, "Certainly he is the very devil incarnal..." (i.e., incarnate) (Act 2, Scene II).
Modern writers make use of malapropisms in novels, cartoons, films, television, and other media.
Malapropism was one of Stan Laurel's comic mannerisms. In Sons Of The Desert, for example, he says that Oliver Hardy is suffering a nervous "shakedown" (rather than "breakdown"), and calls the Exalted Ruler of their group the "exhausted ruler".
Archie Bunker, a character in the American TV sitcom All in the Family is also known for malapropisms. He calls Orthodox Jews "off-the-docks Jews" and refers to "the Women's Lubrication Movement" (rather than Liberation).
In August 2013, Australian politician Tony Abbott addressed an audience of Liberal Party members, stating "No one, however smart, however well educated, however experienced is the suppository of all wisdom".
The song titles, "A Hard Day's Night" and "Tomorrow Never Knows", by The Beatles, both originated as "Ringoisms" — confused speech uttered by Ringo Starr. John Lennon and Paul McCartney called the two phrases "malapropisms".
It was reported in New Scientist that an office worker had described a colleague as "a vast suppository of information" (i.e., repository or depository). The worker then apologised for his "Miss-Marple-ism" (i.e. malapropism). New Scientist noted this as possibly the first time anyone had uttered a malapropism for the word malapropism itself.
In his essay, "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs", the philosopher Donald Davidson suggests that malapropisms reveal something about how people process the meanings of words. He argues that language competence must not simply involve learning a set meaning for each word, and then rigidly applying those semantic rules to decode other people's utterances. Rather, he says, people must also be continually making use of other contextual information to interpret the meaning of utterances, and then modifying their understanding of each word's meaning based on those interpretations.
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- The dictionary definition of malapropism at Wiktionary