Definitions

cried over spilled milk

Malapropism

[mal-uh-prop-iz-uhm]

A malapropism (also called a Dogberryism) is the substitution of an incorrect word for a word with a similar sound, usually to comic effect.

Etymology

The word malapropos is an adjective or adverb meaning "inappropriate" or "inappropriately", derived from the French phrase mal à propos (literally "ill-suited"). The earliest English usage of the word cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1630.

The terms malapropism and the earlier variant malaprop come from Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 play The Rivals, and in particular the character Mrs. Malaprop. Sheridan presumably named his character Mrs. Malaprop, who frequently misspoke (to great comic effect) in joking reference to the word malapropos.

The alternative phrase "Dogberryism" comes from the Shakespearean play Much Ado About Nothing, in which the character Dogberry served the same purpose as Mrs. Malaprop for comedic effect.

Distinguishing features

An instance of mis-speech is called a malapropism when:

  1. The word that is used means something different from the word the speaker or writer intended to use.
  2. The word that is used sounds similar to the word that was apparently meant or intended. 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) would be.
  3. The word that is used has a recognized meaning in the speaker's or writer's language.

These characteristics set malapropisms apart from other speaking or writing mistakes, such as an eggcorns or spoonerisms.

Simply making up a word, or adding a redundant or ungrammatical prefix (irregardless instead of regardless) or suffix (subliminible instead of subliminal) to an existing word, does not qualify as a malapropism.

Examples

The Rivals

  • "She's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile." (i.e., alligator)
  • "He is the very pineapple of politeness." (i.e., pinnacle)
  • "If I reprehend any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!" (i.e., comprehend, vernacular, arrangement, epithets)
  • "Venus has a reprobate orbit." (i.e., retrograde)

Radio, film, and television

  • Norm Crosby, a comedian with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame known as the "Master of the Malaprop", based a large portion of his act on malapropisms.
  • Yogi Berra , "It's not the heat, It's the Humility" Among other quotes by him.
  • Selections from a rich malapropism culture of The Sopranos: "Revenge is like serving cold cuts." "…my knight in white satin armor." "…prostate with grief." "Quasimodo predicted this" "Create a little dysentery among the ranks."
  • "It were my secret to successive. Thanks to Jimmy Jenkins my ovulary size is much much not smaller than ever before" - (i.e., "success", vocabulary, and other mistakes). This comes from The Joe Jefferson Vocabulary Builder Upper - by Bob and Tom, a humorous recording consisting mostly of malapropisms. Parodies an infomercial for an (evidently unsuccessful) system to improve one's vocabulary.
  • "I've got these two albacores around my neck" (i.e., albatross) "It's like the Rime of the Ancient Marinade..." (i.e., Mariner). - Aqua Teen Hunger Force (the former is also heard in The Sopranos)
  • "I've gotta consecrate myself on this newspaper." (i.e., concentrate). — All in the Family (Note the nonstandard use of the reflexive, illustrating a Yiddish-German influence on the dialect of New York City.) Also, "Patience is a virgin."
  • "I want to be effluent mum!" "You are effluent Kimi..." (i.e., affluent) — Kath and Kim
  • "What are you incinerating?..." (i.e., insinuating) — Galton and Simpson, Steptoe and Son ("Doodlebug over Shepherd's Bush")
  • "I can say that without fear of contraception" (i.e., contradiction) — Hylda Baker was originally a British music hall star who used malapropisms extensively in her stage act. Best known for the TV situation comedy Nearest and Dearest where she continued the tradition.
  • "Brudder, you got a preposition and that thing will give you a conclusion of the brain" are some of the countless malapropisms uttered by cartoon legend Bugs Bunny in some of his two-reelers.
  • "You could have knocked me over with a fender." (i.e., feather) — Jane Ace, one of many malapropisms she used on the old-time radio comedy series, Easy Aces.
  • "We heard the ocean is infatuated with sharks" (i.e., infested) - Stan Laurel in The Live Ghost.
  • "What a terrible cat's after me!" (i.e., catastrophe) - Stan Laurel in Any Old Port!
  • "She said honesty was the best politics" (i.e., policy) - Stan Laurel in Sons of the Desert
  • "V.D. Day!" (i.e., V-E Day) — Edith Bunker (as played by Jean Stapleton), on television's All in the Family. That show's Archie Bunker character once referred to the AFL-CIO as "The UFO-CIA"
  • "Where are my mannerisms?" (i.e., "manners:) - Tigger in Disney's Winnie the Pooh
  • "Lorraine, my density has brought me to you."; "Yes! I'm George! I'm your density!" (destiny)—George McFly, Back to the Future
  • "That's about as funny as a screen door on a battleship!" (i.e., submarine) —Biff Tannen, Back to the Future
  • "So you'd better make like a tree and get out of here!" (i.e., leave (leaf)) —Biff Tannen, Back to the Future
  • "I'll hunt you and shoot you down like a duck." (i.e., dog) — Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen, Back to the Future III
  • "I can't even phantom how that must feel!" (i.e., fathom) — Young girl in a television ad for T-Mobile wherein her father sat strapped into a chair while she used up her "anytime minutes."
  • "I resemble that remark!" (i.e., resent) - Stooge Curly Howard, after being insulted by fellow Stooge Moe

  • "Let's talk about a very tattoo subject..." (i.e., "taboo") - Various episodes of Da Ali G Show
  • "My boss is on my case. He says I've got to have a more professional relationship with my secretary, or else I have to fire her. He gave me an old tomato. . . . when you have to do one thing or the other. You have to eat it or throw it. An old tomato." (i.e., ultimatum)- Will and Grace, Episode 145, "Vince and Nadine"
  • "I'm here tonight to speak out against busting schoolchildren." (i.e "bussing schoolchildren") - Emily Litella from Saturday Night Live
  • "Just sing it with no music; you know, Acapulco." (i.e., a cappella)- Suzanne Sugarbaker from Designing Women
  • "Eastern and Specific Time." (i.e., "Pacific") - Jillian (Brian Griffin's girlfriend) from Family Guy
  • "Why aren't I allowed to say the phrase, 'for all intensive purposes?'" (i.e., for all intents and purposes) Doug Heffernan from The King of Queens
  • "So guys, bring your wives on down to Furniture Factory Outbreak (i.e., "Furniture Factory Outlet"), for prices so low, they're ecological (i.e., economical)." -- uttered by the late Harlan Jordan, who, in ads for the Muldrow, Oklahoma-based Furniture Factory Outlet, almost always committed a malapropism with the word furniture, factory, or outlet, such as "Furniture Flattery Outlet", "Furrier Factory Outlet", "Furniture Factory Inlet", etc.
  • "If there is any justice in the world, Maris Crane and Niles Crane will soon be executed." (i.e., exonerated) - Dr Frasier Crane from Frasier (Later in the episode Niles actually calls Frasier Mr. Malaprop for this)
  • "The ironing is delicious." (i.e., irony) - Bart Simpson, after finding Lisa in detention.
  • "Because I like you, I'll even do it pro boner." (i.e., pro bono) - Bart Simpson agreeing to help Seymour Skinner with his love life.
  • "You're very observant: the sacred and the propane" (i.e., "profane") — Carmine Lupertazzi Jr.
  • "Isn't there like a statue of limitations on that?" (i.e., statute of limitations); Cosmo Kramer
  • "Yeah, I super-size with you." (i.e., sympathize); Frito from Idiocracy
  • "Welcome to my humble chapeau!" (i.e., chateau); Belle Carroca from My Favorite Year
  • "It's proper posh up at that new doctor's - they got tubercular steel furniture in the waitin' room" (i.e., tubular); Pete 'n' Eva on Radio Bristol
  • "You're just a pigment of my affiliation" - Jon Douglas Dixon of Standing Hampton
  • "I can't believe you don't see the oblivious!" (i.e., obvious) - Chicken in Cow and Chicken
  • "So, truth has to lie prostate, which means we have to reveal it in its nakedness, even if that nakedness seems to be connected to a lack of power." Princeton Professor Cornell West confusing "prostate" with "prostrate" on September 7, 2007, Episode #517 of Real Time with Bill Maher
  • "My uncle had a problem with his probate and he had to take these big pills and drink lots of water." (i.e., prostate) - Roger Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit
  • Joey Tribiani of NBC's Friends "No, a moo point (moot point). Yeah, it's like a cow's opinion. It just doesn't matter. It's moo."
  • "And I am unanimous in that!"; Mrs Slocombe's standard declaration of defiance on Are You Being Served?

Popular culture

  • "I might just fade into Bolivian, you know what I mean?" (i.e., oblivion) — Mike Tyson
  • "I really dig Hannibal. Hannibal had real guts. He rode elephants into Cartilage." (i.e., Carthage) — Mike Tyson
  • "I am not going to make a skeptical out of my boxing career." (i.e., spectacle) — Tonya Harding
  • "I can shoot with my left hand, I can shoot with my right hand, I'm amphibious." (i.e., ambidextrous) — Charles Shackleford
  • "Mark Lee's arms went up like two giant testicles..." (i.e., tentacles) - Jack Dyer commenting on a VFL match (Mark Lee was a former Richmond ruckman)
  • "If it's any consolidation ..." (i.e., consolation) — Ken James
  • "My nipple."(i.e., dimple) — Malaysian singer Siti Nurhaliza when asked what her best facial feature was.
  • "On the Day of Atonement, I cannot afford to be sick. (i.e., "a tournament") -- Sam Snead, golfer. He said this in a commercial he made for Bromo-Seltzer. According to the Book of Sports Lists by Pepe and Hollandrer, the Jewish part of his audience understood he was not referring to Yom Kippur but could not pronounce "tournament".
  • "Oh, you mean the ones with those disraeli gears?" (i.e., derailleur gears) - Cream roadie Mick Turner, during a conversation between Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker about racing bicycles.
  • "I made a carnal sin (i.e., cardinal), I forgot my words". — singer Brandon Rogers after being voted off American Idol on March 14 2007.
  • "But beyond crude oil, natural gas and electricity, the Nymex is also a major platform for trading futures and options contracts in all sorts of precocious metals." (i.e., precious metals)

Shakespeare

Malapropisms appear in many works written well before Sheridan created their namesake character; William Shakespeare used them in a number of his plays.

Constable Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing:

  • "...you shall comprehend all vagrom men..." (i.e., apprehend, vagrant; Act 3, Scene III)
  • "Comparisons are odorous." (i.e., odious; Act 3, Scene V)
  • "Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons." (i.e., apprehended, suspicious; Act 3, Scene V)

Launcelot in The Merchant of Venice:

  • "Certainly [Shylock] is the very devil incarnal..." (i.e., incarnate; Act 2, Scene II)
  • "That is the very defect of the matter, sir." (i.e., effect; Act 2, Scene II)

Elbow in Measure for Measure

  • "two notorious benefactors" (i.e., malefactors; Act 2, Scene I)
  • "if she has been a woman cardinally given"; (i.e., carnally, Act 2, Scene I)

Nurse in Romeo and Juliet:

  • "If you be he, sir, I desire some confidence with you." Benvolio then responds "She will indite him to some supper." (i.e.: conference, invite; Act 3, Scene I)

Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream:

  • Bottom says he will "aggravate" his voice when he really means he will "moderate" it.
  • Bottom says " Thisbe, the flowers of odious savours sweet!" He said odious which really means repulsive instead of a pleasant odour.
  • Bottom says "deflowered" when he means "devoured".

The First Clown in Hamlet

  • "... crowner’s quest ..." (meaning a coroner's inquest; Act 5, Scene I)

Fictional characters

  • "Why killing's the matter! Why murder's the matter! But he can give you the perpendiculars." (i.e., particulars, from a scene in Horrible Histories)
  • The infants from the show Rugrats constantly used malapropisms, e.g. As Bob is my witless.(As God is my witness.)
  • Sally Brown from Peanuts often used malapropisms.
  • A character in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain requests that Beethoven's Erotica (Eroica) be played at a funeral.
  • In Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin: "I'm so smart it's almost scary. I guess I'm a child progeny (prodigy)." Hobbes: "Most children are."
  • In the British situation comedy Nearest and Dearest, the main character Nellie Pledge often uses malapropisms such as "Then he laid prostate on the ground." (i.e., prostrate), "...sat sitting there like a big business typhoon!" (i.e., tycoon), and "I think I can quite safely say without fear of contraception..." (i.e., contradiction).
  • The character of Ricky (Trailer Park Boys) uses malapropisms on a regular basis: he calls Sasquatches "Saskatchewans," and says his daughter is just going through "phrases." (i.e., phases)
  • Archie Bunker's limited grasp of the English language resulted in a large number of now classic unintentional malapropisms during All In the Family's run (e.g. "vagrant disregard for the law", "the Pope is inflammable," "patience is a virgin," "you look like you seen a goat"). (i.e., flagrant, infallible, virtue, ghost)
  • In Only Fools and Horses, Del Boy played by David Jason often uses malapropisms for comic effects, such as "good to be back on the old terracotta" (i.e., "terra firma").
  • In The Sopranos, the characters frequently use malapropisms. Tony Soprano, the protagonist played by James Gandolfini, has committed various malapropisms, such as referring to amour fou, French for "crazy love," as "our mofo."
  • Tom Stoppard's play On the Razzle features many zany malapropisms that run symbiotic to much of the mistaken identity that occurs throughout the story.
  • Rachel Price, in The Poisonwood Bible, uses several malapropisms during her narrations. They include "granite" in place of granted, and "addenda" for agenda.
  • The comic strip Frank and Ernest has a recurring character named "malaprop man" who narrates the strip using malapropisms. In fact, much of this strip features malapropisms.
  • "Though I am replicant to spread rumors, I am led to believe the philogy of skeletous beings makes them resistive to magic." -- Lord Rugdumph gro-Shurak, a character in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
  • Sol Butcher of Sons Of Butcher often uses many malapropisms.(eg:"Beauty is only deep skin, it's what beside her that counts." "When death comes, I'll welcome it with open legs.")
  • The character Minako Aino/Sailor Venus from Sailor Moon often accidentally uses malapropisms when using figures of speech, in both the original Japanese version and in the English dub. (eg: She said "No use crying over spilled milk" as "Don't worry about Fish eggs from before" in the original. It was changed into "No use crying over ruined silk" in the English dub)
  • In Richard Russo's novel Straight Man, landlord Charles Purty's habitually utters malapropisms throughout.
  • Kelly Bundy of Married... with Children often used malapropisms, such as "The prostitution rests" or "Fly like a beagle!" (i. e. "prosecution", "eagle")
  • Karen Walker of NBC's Will & Grace: "Come on. When was the last time you and I took off to Bermuda on the sperm (spur) of the moment? Let's go!"
  • Buffy Summers often mangled the names of demons on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the episode "Faith, Hope & Trick," she manages to refer to vampire Kakistos as "kissing toast" and "taquitos." Near the end of the Angelus arc in season two, she referred to Acathla as "Alfalfa" and "Al Franken."
  • The younger characters from South Park commonly use malapropisms; for instance, Stan, Kyle, and Cartman perform the Stations of the Cross in an effort to give Kyle's dad a "resurrection" when Gerald is having impotence issues. An extreme example would be Cartman's use of the word catamite (meaning the younger partner in a pederastic relationship between two males) in the episode Eek, A Penis! instead of paramount (which is used to denote importance) while explaining his success teaching the students.

Real life

  • It was reported in New Scientist that an office worker described a colleague as "a vast suppository of information". (i.e., "repository")
  • New Scientist also reported the first-ever malapropism for "malapropism", when, having become aware of his error, the office worker apologised, saying he had committed a "Miss Marple-ism.
  • Time reported Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern as warning his country against "upsetting the apple tart" (ie., "apple cart") of his country's economic success.
  • Alanis Morissette unintentionally misused the term 'malapropism' when she commented on her unintentional misuse of the term 'ironic' within her song "Ironic".
  • A contestant on ego trip's Miss Rap Supreme claimed that "alcohol, as they say, helps you let down your prohibitions." (i.e., "inhibitions)
  • "It's great to be back on terra cotta!" (i.e., Terra firma) — John Prescott, former British politician.
  • "However, they delineate—quotas, I think, vulcanize society." (i.e., balkanize or vulgarize) - George W. Bush
  • An instructor for a children's law course described statutory rape as "When an adult age 16 or older has sex with a statue."

Philosophical significance

In the essay "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs", philosopher Donald Davidson argues that malapropisms demonstrate that competence in a language is not a matter of applying rigid rules to the decoding of utterances. Rather, says Davidson, it appears that in interpreting others, people constantly modify their own understanding of our language.

See also

References

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