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What Is a Malapropism? Definition and Examples

Updated on December 6, 2023StudentsWriting Tips

Chances are you’ve used a malapropism at some point in your life, whether you substituted song lyrics you misheard, inserted your own word when another didn’t feel right, or fell back on language that was familiar and seemed to fit well enough (though maybe not perfectly). Here we’ll learn about malapropisms—what the word means and how to recognize a malapropism when you make one or hear others doing it (no shame; we’ve all been there!).

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What is a malapropism?

A malapropism (pronounced mal-uh-prop-iz-uhm) is an incorrect word that sounds like the correct one, often to comedic effect. In many cases, the malapropism will have the same number of syllables and metric pattern and be the same part of speech as the correct word.

Malapropisms are also known as malaprops, acyrologia, and Dogberryisms. Although their most common name and their origin story are linked to The Rivals, a comedy of manners first performed in 1775, earlier authors, including William Shakespeare, used them in character dialogue for comedic effect. One notable example is the character Constable Dogberry’s tendency toward them in Much Ado About Nothing. His penchant for malapropisms is the reason why this type of slip-up is sometimes called a Dogberryism.

In The Rivals, a character named Mrs. Malaprop repeatedly uses incorrect words that sound similar to the correct words in context, to humorous effect. A few examples of these “original” malapropisms include:

  • Illiterate [obliterate] him quite from your memory.”
  • “She’s as headstrong as an allegory [alligator] on the banks of the Nile.”

When authors deliberately use malapropisms (or words that initially seem like malapropisms) in their work, it can be a form of wordplay or a way to use figurative language. For example, you might say, “I was bitten by a snake, and the doctor gave me an anecdote. Now I know all about his adventures in the rainforest!” The joke is that anecdote (a story) could be a malapropism for antidote (a cure), but the second sentence makes it clear that you did, in fact, mean to say anecdote.

How to recognize malapropism

As we noted above, a malapropism is more than a misused word. It’s a misused word similar in sound to the intended word but drastically different in meaning.

One of the most well-known malapropism sources in English is Yogi Berra, who was a baseball player, manager, and coach. Berra once said the following about a switch hitter: “He hits from both sides of the plate. He’s amphibious.” In this statement, Berra meant to use the word ambidextrous, which means that one is equally capable of using one’s left and right hand.

Let’s compare the words amphibious and ambidextrous to understand malapropisms a bit better:

  • Both start with the letter a.
  • Both have four syllables.
  • Both are adjectives.
  • Both stress the second syllable.
  • Both contain the letter clusters am, bi, and ous.

Not all malapropisms have this many similarities to the speaker’s intended word, but all malapropisms are fairly close in this way. However, if Yogi Berra had substituted anaphylactic for ambidextrous, it wouldn’t have been a malapropism. Instead, it would have been a misnomer. A misnomer is a word that’s simply incorrect for its context, and for many, misnomers are a grammatical pet peeve.

The first step in recognizing a malapropism is recognizing that a word is being used in the wrong context. If a word sounds “off” but you can’t quite place it, look it up. If you determine that the word is being used incorrectly, find the correct word. If it’s a malapropism, you can find clues about the correct word by examining the incorrect word’s first letter, number of syllables, and stress pattern.

Malapropism vs. eggcorn

An eggcorn is like a malapropism in that it uses the wrong word; the difference is that with an eggcorn, the substituted word makes sense in the context. Here are a few sentences that include eggcorns:

  • Everybody was lip-singing [lip-synching] to my favorite song.
  • I could care less [couldn’t care less] about the football game.
  • Nip it in the butt [nip it in the bud] before it becomes a problem.

It’s not uncommon to hear people refer to acorns as eggcorns, probably because they are egg-shaped. Eggcorns can be tricky because some eggcorns, like the phrase “could care less,” occur so frequently that they’ve evolved to become just as acceptable as their “correct” forms.

Examples of malapropisms in literature

“I was most putrified [petrified] with astonishment.” —Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

“He is the very pineapple [pinnacle] of politeness!” —The Rivals, by Richard Sheridan

“Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended [apprehended] two auspicious [suspicious] persons.” —Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare

“Good Master Snare, let him not ’scape. He comes continuantly to Pie Corner, saving your manhoods, to buy a saddle, and he is indited [invited] to dinner to the Lubber’s Head in Lumbert Street, to Master Smooth’s the silkman.” —Henry IV, by William Shakespeare

“Barbarous monster! how have I deserved that my passion should be resulted [insulted] and treated with ironing [irony]?” —Joseph Andrews, by Henry Fielding

“. . . the boy who cried Woof [wolf]!” —Sabbath’s Theater, by Philip Roth

Malapropism FAQs

What is a malapropism?

A malapropism is a word used in a phrase or sentence that isn’t actually the correct word to use in context but sounds fairly similar to the correct word.

How do they work?

Malapropisms are characterized by their similarities to the words their writers and speakers meant to say and write. In most cases, this means they have the same number of syllables, contain similar letter groupings, and are the same part of speech.

What’s the difference between a malapropism and an eggcorn?

While a malapropism describes using a similar yet incorrect word in a phrase or sentence, an eggcorn is a similar, incorrect word that logically fits the sentence’s context. For example, lip-singing is an eggcorn for lip-synching because the latter is an imitation of singing done by mimicking the lyrics’ lip movements.

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