A malapropism (also called a malaprop or 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 the statement by baseball player Yogi Berra, "Texas has a lot of electrical votes", rather than "electoral votes". Malapropisms also occur as errors in natural speech and are often the subject of media attention, especially when made by politicians or other prominent individuals. Philosopher Donald Davidson has noted that malapropisms show the complex process through which the brain translates thoughts into language.
The word "malapropism" (and its earlier variant "malaprop") comes from a character named "Mrs. Malaprop" in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 play The Rivals. Mrs. Malaprop frequently misspeaks (to comic effect) by using words which don't have the meaning that 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 Shakespeare play Much Ado About Nothing in which the character Dogberry utters many malapropisms to humorous effect. Though Shakespeare was an earlier writer than Sheridan, "malaprop/malapropism" seems an earlier coinage than "Dogberryism", which is not attested until 1836.
Definitions differ somewhat in terms of the cause of the error. Some scholars include only errors that result from a temporary failure to produce the word which the speaker intended. Such errors are sometimes called "Fay-Cutler malapropism", after David Fay and Anne Cutler, who described the occurrence of such errors in ordinary speech. Most definitions, however, include any actual word that is wrongly or accidentally used in place of a similar sounding, correct word. This broader definition is sometimes called "classical malapropism", or simply "malapropism".
For example, it is not a malapropism to use obtuse [wide or dull] instead of acute [narrow or sharp]; it is a malapropism to use obtuse [stupid or slow-witted] when one means abstruse [esoteric or difficult to understand].
Malapropisms tend to maintain the part of speech of the originally intended word. According to linguist Jean Aitchison, "The finding that word selection errors preserve their part of speech suggest that the latter is an integral part of the word, and tightly attached to it." Likewise, substitutions tend to have the same number of syllables and the same metrical structure – the same pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables – as the intended word or phrase. If the stress pattern of the malapropism differs from the intended word, unstressed syllables may be deleted or inserted; stressed syllables and the general rhythmic pattern are maintained.
Examples from fiction
The fictional Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan's play The Rivals utters many malapropisms. In Act 3 Scene III, 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.
Malapropisms appeared in many works before Sheridan created the character of Mrs. Malaprop. William Shakespeare used them in a number of his plays, almost invariably spoken by comic ill-educated lower class characters. Mistress Quickly, the inn-keeper associate of Falstaff in several Shakespeare plays, is a regular user of malapropisms. 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) (Act 3, Scene V).
Modern writers make use of malapropisms in novels, cartoons, films, television, and other media.
Malapropism was one of Stan Laurel's comic mannerisms. In Sons Of The Desert, for example, he says that Oliver Hardy is suffering a nervous "shakedown" (rather than "breakdown"), and calls the Exalted Ruler of their group the "exhausted ruler"; in The Music Box, he inadvertently asked a policeman, "Don't you think you're bounding over your steps?" meaning "stepping over your bounds" – which Hardy corrected, causing the cop to get more angry at him. British comedian Ronnie Barker also made great use of deliberate malapropisms in his comedy, notably in such sketches as his "Appeal on behalf of the Loyal Society for the Relief of Suffers from Pismronunciation", which mixed malapropisms and garbled words for comic effect – including news of a speech which "gave us a few well-frozen worms (i.e., well-chosen words) in praise of the society."
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).
Malapropisms do not occur only as comedic literary devices. They also occur as a kind of speech error in ordinary speech. Examples are often quoted in the media.
It was reported in New Scientist that an office worker had described a colleague as "a vast suppository of information" (i.e., repository or depository). The worker then apologised for his "Miss-Marple-ism" (i.e. malapropism). New Scientist noted this as possibly the first time anyone had uttered a malapropism for the word malapropism itself.
Texas governor Rick Perry has been known to commonly commit malapropisms, for example describing states as "lavatories of innovation and democracy" instead of "laboratories".
In his essay "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs", philosopher Donald Davidson suggests that malapropisms reveal something about how people process the meanings of words. He argues that language competence must not simply involve learning a set meaning for each word, and then rigidly applying those semantic rules to decode other people's utterances. Rather, he says, people must also be continually making use of other contextual information to interpret the meaning of utterances, and then modifying their understanding of each word's meaning based on those interpretations.
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