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    What’s A Malapropism?

    For all intensive purposes, a malapropism is a fun figure of speech — and it can also teach us something important about language.

    What’s A Malapropism?

    For all intensive purposes, malapropisms are a fun figure of speech — and they can teach us something important about language.

    BY STEPH KOYFMAN February 7, 2020

    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.”

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    What is malapropism

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    The blundering use of an absurdly inappropriate word or expression in place of a similar sounding one

    Malapropism is much older as a phenomenon than it is as a word.

    An instance of this; malaprop

    The humor comes from all the malapropisms.

    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"

    ludicrous misuse of a word by confusion with one that sounds similar

    A grotesque misuse of a word; a word so used

    {i} absurd misuse of words (especially the confusion of words which have a similar sound but a different meaning)

    an amusing mistake that you make when you use a word that sounds similar to the word you intended to say but means something completely different (Mrs Malaprop character who uses words wrongly in the play The Rivals (1775) by Richard Sheridan, from mal à propos )

    An instance of this

    The blundering use of an absurdly inappropriate word in place of a similar sounding one

    Misusing words to create a comic effect or characterize the speaker as being too confused, ignorant, or flustered to use correct diction Typically, the malapropism involves the confusion of two polysyllabic words that sound somewhat similar but have different meanings For instance, a stereotyped black maid in Edgar Rice Burrough's Tarzan of the Apes series cries out as she falls into the jungle river, "I sho' nuff don't want to be eaten by no river allegories, no sir!" Dogberry the Watchman in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing says, "Comparisons are odorous," and later, "It shall be siffigance"--both malapropisms In Sheridan, we find pineapple instead of pinnacle and so on The best malapropisms are close enough in sound to the correct word so that the audience can both recognize the intended meaning and laugh at the incongruous result

    \mal-uh-PROP-iz-uhm\, noun: The usually unintentionally humorous misuse of a word, especially by confusion with one of similar sound; also, an example of such misuse

    the unintentional misuse of a word by confusion with one that sounds similar


    Related Terms


    plural of malapropism







    Pronunciation Etymology

    [ 'ma-l&-"prä-"pi-z& ] (noun.) 1849. From the name of Mrs. Malaprop, a character in the play The Rivals (1775) by Richard Brinsley Sheridan + -ism. As dramatic characters in English comic plays of this time often had allusive names, it is likely that Sheridan fashioned the name from malapropos (“inappropriate”). Mrs. Malaprop is perhaps the best-known example of a familiar comedic character archetype who unintentionally substitutes inappropriate but like-sounding words that take on a ludicrous meaning when used incorrectly.


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    Malapropism Definition & Meaning

    The meaning of MALAPROPISM is 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. How to use malapropism in a sentence. Did you know?


    malapropism noun

    mal·​a·​prop·​ism ˈma-lə-ˌprä-ˌpi-zəm


    : 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

    "Jesus healing those leopards" is an example of malapropism.



    malapropist ˈma-lə-ˌprä-pist noun

    Did you know?

    Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Richard Sheridan's 1775 play The Rivals, was known for her verbal blunders. "He is the very pine-apple of politeness," she exclaimed, complimenting a courteous young man. Thinking of the geography of contiguous countries, she spoke of the "geometry" of "contagious countries," and she hoped that her daughter might "reprehend" the true meaning of what she was saying. She regretted that her "affluence" over her niece was small. The word malapropism derives from this blundering character's name, which Sheridan took from the French term mal à propos, meaning "inappropriate."

    Example Sentences

    Recent Examples on the Web

    So this was a particular set of circumstances, a true perfect storm: Congress, the pandemic, people’s kids, one deeply unfortunate malapropism, and race.

    —Michael Tomasky, The New Republic, 3 Nov. 2021

    How small is too small for someone with a shrinking fetish?), Gupta and Gelula begin to self-flagellate, blaming themselves for being too lazy to do research or for stumbling into some ridiculous malapropism.

    —Sean Malin, Vulture, 4 Oct. 2021

    Every kid is a virtuoso of language: those monkey-hear toddler approximations, a six-year-old’s idiosyncratic pronunciations, the malapropisms that continue well into adolescence.

    —Rumaan Alam, The New Yorker, 19 May 2020

    See More

    These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'malapropism.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

    Word History


    Mrs. Malaprop, character noted for her misuse of words in R. B. Sheridan's comedy The Rivals (1775)

    First Known Use

    1826, in the meaning defined at sense 1

    Time Traveler

    The first known use of malapropism was in 1826

    See more words from the same year

    Articles Related to malapropism

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    What is a Malaprop?

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    Dictionary Entries Near malapropism

    malaprop malapropism malapropos

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    Cite this Entry

    “Malapropism.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/malapropism. Accessed 25 Dec. 2022.

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    Nglish: Translation of malapropism for Spanish Speakers

    Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about malapropism

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