I. What is a Malapropism?
Sometimes, we just say the wrong things. Other times, we purposely say the wrong things. In each case, the French phrase mal à propo, meaning “inappropriate,” is a proper response. Malapropisms are incorrect words used in place of correct words; these can be unintentional or intentional, but both cases have a comedic effect.
II. Examples of Malapropism
The doctor administered the anecdote.
A doctor is meant to administer an “antidote,” or remedy, rather than an “anecdote,” or story.
I have good punctuation—I’m never late!
The malapropism here is “punctuation” for “punctuality.”
He is the very pineapple of politeness!
Consider this example from Mrs. Malaprop herself, the character in Richard Sheridan’s comedy The Rivals who popularized the use of malapropisms. What Mrs. Malaprop means to say is that this man is the pinnacle, or greatest example, of politeness. She is, as usual, lost in translation.
III. The Importance of Malapropism
Malapropism is a unique literary device in that it has its origins in a specific comedic play, The Rivals, in a specific character, Mrs. Malaprop. Richard Sheridan first showed the play in 1775. Mrs. Malaprop’s constant malapropisms provide the play with continual comedy.
Here are a few examples:
He’s as headstrong as an allegory (alligator) on the banks of the Nile.
I thought she had persisted (desisted) from corresponding with him.
Malapropisms allow writers and actors to create laughable comedies of errors. On the other hand, they make laughingstocks of those who unintentionally commit them: politicians, celebrities, friends, and family alike.
IV. Examples of Malapropism in Literature
Malapropisms are also known by a second name, Dogberryisms.
One word, sir. Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended (apprehended) two auspicious (suspicious) persons, and we should have them this morning examined before your worship.
This phrase comes from Shakespeare’s character Officer Dogberry in the play Much Ado About Nothing. Dogberry struggles to say what he means, adding comedy and surprise to this classic play.
… and he himself must speak through, saying thus, or to the same defect (effect).
This comes from Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The defect in Bottom’s speaking is literally the word defect, used incorrectly for effect. Bottom, the play’s source of comedic effect, is known for the scene in which his face is aptly transformed into a donkey’s.
V. Examples of Malapropism in Pop Culture
Malapropisms are commonly found in comedic movies, television shows, and advertisements.
One classic example of a character who frequently misspeaks is Archie Bunker from the television show All in the Family:
You know, that is what you call inflammable.
Archie, ever-opinionated, misspeaks and calls the Pope inflammable instead of infallible.
For a second example, see this quote by Yogi Berra, famed baseball player and wordplay enthusiast:
Thank you for making this day necessary.
Berra meant to say “possible” but misread his speech.
VI. Related Terms
Spoonerisms, mondegreens, and malapropisms! Yes, these are all truly literary devices.
Spoonerisms, just like malapropisms, can result from confusion and lead to hilarity. Unlike malapropism, spoonerisms are not words replaced by words but words all mixed up. Spoonerisms are words or phrases with the order of sounds confused. Here are a few examples of spoonerisms:
I saw a flutterby blying fly. (I saw a butterfly flying by.)
We alopogize, occifer. (We apologize, officer.)
Let’s go goys and birls! (Let’s go boys and girls!)
Mondegreens result not from the error of the speaker, but the error of the listener. Mondegreens are a mishearing, resulting in an incorrect understanding of what the speaker meant.
For an example of a mondegreen, consider these lyrics from Frank Sinatra’s song “Love and Marriage”:
Love and marriage, love and marriage
Go together like a horse and carrots
A poor listener may mistake the actual lyrics, “horse and carriage,” for “horse and carrots.” The mondegreen makes sense but replaces smooth lyrics with comedic ones. Song lyrics are often the source of mondegreens.
Malapropisms, spoonerisms, and mondegreens are slightly different devices, but all have one thing in common: they result in laughable mistakes and misunderstandings.