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A malapropism (also called a malaprop, acyrologia, or Dogberryism) is the mistaken use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical, sometimes humorous utterance. An example is the statement attributed to baseball player Yogi Berra, "Texas has a lot of electrical votes", rather than "electoral votes".[1] Malapropisms often occur as errors in natural speech and are sometimes the subject of media attention, especially when made by politicians or other prominent individuals. Philosopher Donald Davidson has said that malapropisms show the complex process through which the brain translates thoughts into language.

Humorous malapropisms are the type that attract the most attention and commentary, but bland malapropisms are common in speech and writing.


Louisa Lane Drew as Mrs. Malaprop in an 1895 production of The Rivals

The word "malapropism" (and its earlier variant "malaprop") comes from a character named "Mrs. Malaprop" in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 play The Rivals.[2] Mrs. Malaprop frequently misspeaks (to comic effect) by using words which do not have the meaning that 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,[3] and the first person known to have used the word "malaprop" in the sense of "a speech error" is Lord Byron in 1814.[4]

The synonymous term "Dogberryism" comes from the 1598 Shakespeare play Much Ado About Nothing in which the character Dogberry utters many malapropisms to humorous effect.[5] Though Shakespeare was an earlier writer than Sheridan, "malaprop/malapropism" seems an earlier coinage than "Dogberryism", which is not attested until 1836.[6]

Distinguishing features[edit]

An instance of speech error is called a malapropism when a word is produced which is nonsensical or ludicrous in context yet similar in sound to what was intended.[7]

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 which the speaker intended.[8] Such errors are sometimes called "Fay–Cutler malapropism", after David Fay and Anne Cutler, who described the occurrence of such errors in ordinary speech.[7][9] 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",[9] or simply "malapropism".[7]

Malapropisms differ from other kinds of speaking or writing mistakes, such as eggcorns or spoonerisms, and from the accidental or deliberate production of newly made-up words (neologisms).[9]

For example, it is not a malapropism to use obtuse [wide or dull] instead of acute [narrow or sharp]; it is a malapropism to use obtuse [stupid or slow-witted] when one means abstruse [esoteric or difficult to understand].

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."[10] 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.[10]


In fiction[edit]

The fictional Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan's play The Rivals utters many malapropisms. In Act 3 Scene III, 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!"[11] 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",[12] —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"), "he is the very pineapple of politeness" (instead of pinnacle) and "she's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile" (instead of alligator).[11][13]

Malapropisms appeared in many works before Sheridan created the character of Mrs. Malaprop. William Shakespeare used them in a number of his plays, almost invariably spoken by comic ill-educated lower class characters. Mistress Quickly, the inn-keeper associate of Falstaff in several Shakespeare plays, is a regular user of malapropisms.[14] 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).[15]

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"), calls the Exalted Ruler of their group the "exhausted ruler" and says that he and Oliver are like "two peas in a pot" (meaning "pod"); in The Music Box, he inadvertently asked a policeman, "Don't you think you're bounding over your steps?" meaning "overstepping your bounds" – which Hardy corrected, causing the cop to get more angry at him.[16]

Emily Litella, a fictional character created and performed by American comedian Gilda Radner used malapropism to entertain viewers on the late-night comedy show Saturday Night Live.[17]

British comedian Ronnie Barker also made great use of deliberate malapropisms in his comedy, notably in such sketches as his "Appeal on behalf of the Loyal Society for the Relief of Suffers from Pismronunciation", which mixed malapropisms and garbled words for comic effect – including news of a speech which "gave us a few well-frozen worms (i.e., well-chosen words) in praise of the society."[18][non-primary source needed]

Ring Lardner used malapropism extensively for comic effect.[19] For example, in his short story The Young Immigrunts, the four-year-old narrator repeatedly refers to a bride and groom as the "bride and glum."[20]

Archie Bunker, a character in the American TV sitcom All in the Family, used malapropisms frequently: he refers, for example, to "off-the-docks Jews" (Orthodox Jews) and the "Women's Lubrication Movement" (rather than Liberation).[21] Intending to refer to the medical specialized field of gynecology and to specialist in that field as a gynecologist, he would mispronounce the words as "groinecology" and "groinecologist."[22]

In The Sopranos, “Little” Carmine Lupertazzi often uses malapropisms. One example is when his daughter notices a crucifix next to creepy imagery, Carmine says “you’re very observant, the sacred and the propane,” meaning to say profane.

Tyler Perry's fictional character Madea is known for her Southern dialectical usage of malapropisms, which some critics link to the Mammy archetype.[23]

In real life[edit]

Malapropisms do not occur only as comedic literary devices. They also occur as a kind of speech error in ordinary speech.[8] Examples are often quoted in the media. Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach of Ireland, warned his country against "upsetting the apple tart" (apple cart) of his country's economic success.[24][25]

Former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley referred to a tandem bicycle as a "tantrum bicycle" and made mention of "Alcoholics Unanimous" (Alcoholics Anonymous).[26]

Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott once claimed that no one "is the suppository of all wisdom" (i.e., repository or depository).[27] Similarly, as reported in New Scientist, an office worker had described a colleague as "a vast suppository of information". The worker then apologised for his "Miss-Marple-ism" (i.e., malapropism).[28] New Scientist noted this as possibly the first time anyone had uttered a malapropism for the word malapropism itself.

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry has been known to commonly utter malapropisms; for example, he described states as "lavatories of innovation and democracy" instead of "laboratories".[29]

During a Senate hearing, Philippine presidential communications assistant secretary Mocha Uson stumbled on the legal phrase "right against self-incrimination" by invoking her "right against self-discrimination" instead.[30]

Former world Heavyweight champion boxer Mike Tyson, upon being asked about his next plans moments after losing in a world title fight with Lennox Lewis, declared that "I might fade into Bolivian" (oblivion).[31][32]

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a common meme format was introduced where Internet users feigned malapropism by substituting the word “pandemic” with similar sounding words (such as “panorama”, “pandemonium”, or “panini”), a practice often attributed to Black Twitter.[33]

Philosophical implications[edit]

In his essay "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs", 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.[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Examples of Malapropism. (2015-10-09). Retrieved on 2015-10-31.
  2. ^ "malapropism, n.". Oxford English Dictionary (third ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2000. ISBN 978-0-19-957112-3.
  3. ^ "malapropos, adv., adj., and n.". Oxford English Dictionary (third ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2000. ISBN 978-0-19-957112-3.
  4. ^ "malaprop, n. and adj.". Oxford English Dictionary (third ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2000. ISBN 978-0-19-957112-3.
  5. ^ Berger, Harry (2005). Situated Utterances. Fordham University Press. p. 499. ISBN 0-8232-2429-5.
  6. ^ "Dogberry, n.2". Oxford English Dictionary online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2010. ISBN 978-0-19-957112-3. Retrieved 2013-09-09.
  7. ^ a b c Aitchison, Jeanne; Straf, Miron (1982). "Lexical storage and retrieval: a developing skill?". In Anne Cutler (ed.). Slips of the Tongue and Language Production. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 197–242. ISBN 978-3-11-082830-6. Retrieved 2013-09-12.
  8. ^ a b Fay, David; Cutler, Anne (1977). "Malapropisms and the Structure of the Mental Lexicon". Linguistic Inquiry. 8 (3): 505–520. JSTOR 4177997.
  9. ^ a b c Zwicky, Arnold (1982). "Classical malapropisms and the creation of the mental lexicon" (PDF). In Loraine Obler and Lise Menn (ed.). Exceptional Language and Linguistics. Academic Press. pp. 115–132. ISBN 978-0-12-523680-5. Retrieved 2013-09-12.
  10. ^ a b Aitchison, Jean (2012). Words in the Mind: An Introduction to the Mental Lexicon. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1118170960.
  11. ^ a b Sheridan, Richard Brinsley (2008) [1775], The Rivals: A Comedy, retrieved 2012-07-10
  12. ^ "Quotations from Richard Brinsley Sheridan". Poem Hunter. Retrieved 2012-07-10.
  13. ^ There are not alligators on the banks of the Nile, although there are crocodiles.
  14. ^ Fergusun, Margaret, Dido's Daughters: Literacy, Gender, and Empire in Early Modern England and France, University of Chicago Press, 2007, p.17.
  15. ^ Shakespeare, William (1997) [1598], Much Ado About Nothing, retrieved 2012-07-10
  16. ^ Gehring, Wes (1990). Laurel and Hardy: A Bio-Bibliography. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-313-25172-6. Retrieved 11 December 2012.
  17. ^ "Word of the Day: Malapropism". Merriam-Webster. 2020-05-17. Retrieved 2021-06-03.
  18. ^ Ronnie Barker monologue: Pismronunciation", The Guardian, 4 October 2005. Retrieved 6 July 2015.
  19. ^ Lardner, Ring (2017). Rapoport, Ron (ed.). The Lost Journalism of Ring Lardner. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. p. 531. ISBN 978-0803269736.
  20. ^ Lardner, Ring (2013). Frazier, Ian (ed.). Ring Lardner: Stories & Other Writings. New York: Library of America. p. 310. ISBN 978-1598532531.
  21. ^ Shapiro, Marianne; Shapiro, Michael (2005). "Chapter 21: The semiotics of Archie Bunker". From The Critic's Workbench: Essays In Literature And Semiotics. Peter Lang. ISBN 978-0-8204-7915-6. Retrieved 2012-07-10.
  22. ^ "Examples of Malaproposism". Retrieved April 2, 2022.
  23. ^ Merritt, Bishetta D.; Cummings, Melbourne S. (2013). "The African American Woman on Film". In J.S.C. Bell; R.L. Jackson II (eds.). Interpreting Tyler Perry: Perspectives on Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. doi:10.4324/9781315889832. ISBN 9781315889832.
  24. ^ Mayer, Catherine (2007-04-26). "Mr. Popularity". Time. Archived from the original on November 14, 2007. Retrieved 2010-05-12.
  25. ^ "Brexit means breakfast for Welsh Tory leader Davies", BBC News, 2016-10-04, retrieved 2016-12-30
  26. ^ Kennedy, Eugene (1978). Himself!: The Life and Times of Mayor Richard J. Daley. Viking Press. ISBN 978-0-670-37258-4. Retrieved 2012-07-10.
  27. ^ Liberals squirm as Abbott refers to 'the suppository of wisdom', The Sydney Morning Herald, 2013-08-12, retrieved 2017-07-10
  28. ^ "New Scientist 18 June 2005 Malapropism for malapropism". 2005-06-18. Retrieved 2012-10-02.
  29. ^ Whittaker, Richard. (2014-08-29) Perry: Welcome to the 'Lavatory': Perry fights charges; has an "oops" - News. The Austin Chronicle. Retrieved on 2015-10-31.
  30. ^ Ager, Maila. (2017-10-04) Mocha invokes right against self-discri… er, incrimination at Senate hearing. Philippine Daily Inquirer. Retrieved on 2017-10-09.
  31. ^ "Mike Tyson fades into Bolivian". 30 January 2017. Archived from the original on 2021-12-11 – via YouTube.
  32. ^ " Page 2 : Say 'goodbye' to our little friend".
  33. ^ Brown, Evan Nicole (19 March 2021). "How Nicknames for the Pandemic Became a Popular Online Trend". The New York Times. Retrieved 10 April 2022.
  34. ^ Davidson, Donald (1986). "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs". In R. Grandy and R. Warner (ed.). Philosophical Grounds of Rationality. Oxford University Press. pp. 157–174. ISBN 0-19-824464-9.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • The dictionary definition of malapropism at Wiktionary