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What Is a Malapropism?

Updated on July 4, 2016Grammar

Who doesn’t like to laugh? It’s fun, it can be shared without losing any of it, and it could be beneficial for your health. It’s also very rewarding to make other people laugh, which is probably one of the reasons authors have, since the time of ancient Greece, been writing comedies. They are a sort of a win-win situation—the writers and actors get the satisfaction of payment, status, or making people laugh, and the audience gets the satisfaction of laughing. And because tastes differ just as people do, different writers have used different techniques to create funny things. Take the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals as an example. In it, one of the main sources of comedy was the character of Mrs. Malaprop, an aunt-type figure who gets involved in the dealings of two young lovers, Lydia Languish and Jack Absolute. What made Mrs. Malaprop appealing to the audience was that she would occasionally misuse words to great comedic effect. She would say things like “He is the very pineapple of politeness,” where the word “pineapple” is used instead of “pinnacle”. Or she would say “His physiognomy so grammatical,” when she actually wanted to say “phraseology.”Or even “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile,” when she really meant to say an alligator. Now, you may or may not find Mrs. Malaprop’s mistakes funny when you read them at home, but at the time the play was first performed in 1775, people found it hilarious. So much so that the comic misuse of words, especially words that sound alike, is today called malapropism. Mrs. Malaprop’s name was, in fact, coined from the French term mal à propos, which means “ill-suited for the purpose.” But Sheridan’s Mrs. Malaprop wasn’t the first fictional character to utter malapropisms. In his play Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare created a character called Dogberry, a watchman who constantly tosses off malapropisms: One word, sir. Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons, and we would have them this morning examined before your worship. O villain! Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this. Of course, what the ever-so-eloquent Dogberry was trying to say in the first sentence was that the watch apprehended two suspicious persons. In the second, the condemnation should have been into everlasting damnation, instead of redemption. Malapropisms have also been used for a comedic effect in more recent times. Stan Laurel of the comedic duo Laurel and Hardy was particularly skilled in their use, as was the character Derek “Del Boy” Trotter from the British TV comedy Only Fools and Horses, played by David Jason. But probably the funniest malapropisms are those that happen in real life—the unscripted little things that can brighten your day, or at least make you laugh for a moment or two. Like hearing Eve Pollard say “cardial, as in cardial arrest.” Or hearing Gib Lewis say that “this is unparalyzed in the state’s history.” Or receiving an email from your coworker asking to bare with them. Or hearing someone call the Sistine Chapel the sixteenth chapel. It’s all good fun, as long as you’re not mean about it.

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