Malapropism

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Origin

The word "malapropism" (and its earlier variant, "malaprop") comes from a character named "Mrs. Malaprop" in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 play The Rivals who 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.

The synonymous term "Dogberryism" comes from the 1598 Shakespearean play Much Ado About Nothing, in which the character Dogberry utters many malapropisms to humorous effect.

Definitions

  • 1: the usually unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase; especially : the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context

Description

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". Malapropisms occur as errors in natural speech. Malapropisms are often the subject of media attention, especially when made by politicians or other prominent individuals.

When used intentionally, malapropisms can be an example of irony. The philosopher Donald Davidson has noted that malapropisms show how complex the process is by which the brain translates thoughts into language.

Examples

  • In Act III Scene 3, of Sheridan's play The Rivals 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.
  • "illiterate him quite from your memory" (instead of 'obliterate')', and "she's as headstrong as an allegory" (instead of alligator).
  • In 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)
  • 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)