What’s A Malapropism?

For all intensive purposes, malapropisms are a fun figure of speech — and they can teach us something important about language.
woman in sunflower field laughing at a malapropism

When Welsh Conservative leader Andrew Davies told the Tory Party conference “we’ll make breakfast a success,” he wasn’t referring to baked beans and blood sausage. What he meant to say was “we’ll make Brexit a success.” And when he made this verbal fumble, he wasn’t just providing the internet with more easily memeable content — he was unwittingly demonstrating a particular figure of speech known as malapropism.

What’s A Malapropism?

Merriam-Webster defines a malapropism as “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.”

This last bit is key, because a malapropism isn’t just any old verbal slip-up. By comparing the “wrong” word with the one intended, it’s often very easy to see (or hear) how the mistake was made in the first place. A pretty common example is “for all intensive purposes.” It sort of sounds right, but the correct phrase is “for all intents and purposes.” Close, but no caviar.

The word “malapropism” actually comes from a 1775 play by Richard Sheridan called The Rivals. The character Mrs. Malaprop was famous for her verbal gaffes, which included such gems as “contagious countries” instead of “contiguous countries” and “reprehend” instead of “comprehend.” The name Mrs. Malaprop, in turn, comes from the French term mal à propos, which means “inappropriate” or “poorly placed.”

You might also hear this referred to as a Dogberryism, after the character Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Dogberry was also responsible for many iconic turns of phrase, such as “comprehended two auspicious persons” instead of “apprehended two suspicious persons.”

What Can They Teach Us?

The average malapropism provides us with entertainment value, and that, in itself, is something. But they also signal something important about the way language works.

Philosopher Donald Davidson had a lot of thoughts about malapropisms. In his 1986 paper “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs,” he argues that malapropisms are proof that the brain often grasps the meta-structure of language and can correct for mistakes within, even if they distort the literal meaning of certain words. In other words, we have the ability to understand the intended meaning of a phrase, even when it’s slightly garbled.

Davidson distinguishes between “prior theory,” how a listener is prepared to interpret the speaker, and “passing theory,” how the listener actually interprets what’s said. The speaker also has a “passing theory,” which is what they intend with their statement. For communication to occur, both passing theories must coincide. And ultimately, what this means is that at its core, there are no hard and fast rules, or even rote consistency, in language. Davidson writes,

“For there are no rules for arriving at passing theories, no rules in any strict sense, as opposed to rough maxims and methodological generalities. A passing theory really is like a theory at least in this, that it is derived by wit, luck, and wisdom from a private vocabulary and grammar, knowledge of the ways people get their point across, and rules of thumb for figuring out what deviations from the dictionary are most likely. There is no more chance of regularizing, or teaching, this process than there is of regularizing or teaching the process of creating new theories to cope with new data in any field—for that is what this process involves.”

Another neat feature of the malapropism? There are linguistic methods to the madness. Linguist Jean Aitchison noted that malapropisms often preserve the part of speech of the “correct” word, and they also often have the same number of syllables and pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. She argues that this suggests the part of speech “is an integral part of the word, and tightly attached to it,” and that, by extension, “the abstract meaning of a word is tightly attached to its word class.”

What Do Malapropisms Look Like In Various Languages?

Many famous malapropisms weren’t necessarily the intentional work of playwrights like Shakespeare — they come from public figures making unintentional mistakes that will probably haunt them forever.

Here are a few examples of famous malapropisms in English:

  • “Create a little dysentery among the ranks.” — Christopher Moltisanti of The Sopranos
  • “No one is the suppository of all wisdom.” — Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott
  • “He was a man of great statue.” — Former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino
  • “It’s not rocket fuel.” — Former Scottish First Minister Henry McLeish
  • “Weapons of mass production.” — Former U.S. President George W. Bush
  • “He eludes confidence.” — Former NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, referring to Barack Obama

Do malapropisms exist in other languages? But of course! One Spanish malapropism is so popular that it’s become a common expression in Spain. Former Miss Spain Sofía Mazagatos once said that she preferred bullfighters who were “in the candelabra” (estar en el candelabro) instead of “in the candlestick” (estar en el candelero), a turn of phrase that means “very famous.”

Also in Spanish, the words pecado (sin) and pescado (fish) are dangerously similar. It wouldn’t be terribly hard to conflate the two and say that you’ve “committed a grave fish.”

In German, the word for Sisyphean task (Sisyphosarbeit) and “syphilis work” (Syphilisarbeit) are also close enough to create a live wire of verbal peril.

Essentially, any word that shares a similar sound, part of speech, and/or metric structure could replace the “correct” word and create a malapropism. The result is that we simultaneously understand the intended meaning and find humor in the mistake. And once in a while, there’s something kind of appropriate about an inappropriately placed word.

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