What Is a Malapropism? | Examples & Definition

A malapropism is a verbal error that involves replacing the intended word with one that sounds similar (e.g., using “mute point” instead of “moot point”). Malapropisms are a linguistic phenomenon that occurs in everyday speech, but they are also used deliberately as a literary device.

Malapropism examples
Malapropism: They always look for an escape goat to blame.

Intended meaning: They always look for a scapegoat to blame.

Malapropism: When problems arise, it’s best to nip them in the butt.

Intended meaning: When problems arise, it’s best to nip them in the bud.

Malapropism: Our work is done, for all intensive purposes.

Intended meaning: Our work is done, for all intents and purposes.

Writers and performers often use malapropisms to create humor or convey particular character traits or themes. They can serve both stylistic and thematic purposes in a text.

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What is a malapropism?

A malapropism is the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding word. This phenomenon is studied in the field of linguistics, but it is also a literary device that’s sometimes used for comedic effect by writers, speakers, and performing artists.

The term “malapropism” is derived from the name of the character Mrs. Malaprop from the 1775 play The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridanin. Mrs. Malaprop is known for her frequent misuse of words, and her name has its origins in the French phrase “mal à propos,” meaning “badly suited to the purpose.”

Malapropism example from Mrs. Malaprop
Malapropism: “If I reprehend anything in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs.” (The Rivals, Act 3, Scene III)

Intended meaning: “If I comprehend anything in this world it is the use of my vernacular tongue, and a nice arrangement of epithets.”

Context: Mrs. Malaprop’s frequent misuse of words throughout the play The Rivals gave the literary device malapropism its name.

Malapropism examples

In literature, malapropisms often appear in comedic plays and novels. They can also be found in popular culture contexts, especially in sitcoms and films.

Malapropisms are used in these artistic contexts to create humorous situations, highlight character traits, or enhance the dynamics of a conversation. For example, in literature, a character’s use of malapropisms might be used to depict them as endearing, pompous, or out of their depth.

Malapropisms in literature

In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, the character Dogberry’s frequent malapropisms serve as comedic relief, revealing his incompetence and pretentiousness.

This style of verbal blunder is such a defining trait of Dogberry’s that the colloquial terms “dogberries” and “dogberryisms” were coined as alternative names for malapropisms.

Malapropism example in literature
Malapropism: “Comparisons are odorous.”

Intended meaning: “Comparisons are odious.”

Context: Dogberry’s malapropisms, like this example from Much Ado About Nothing (Act III, Scene V), underscore his incompetence and pretentiousness for comedic relief.

In the works of P. G. Wodehouse, the recurring character of Bertie Wooster is an affable but often confused character with upper-class affectations.

The following example demonstrates how malapropism, among other literary devices, is used to make this character seem both likable and a bit foolish.

Malapropism example in literature
I stared at her.

“What? Incredulous!”

Incredible, sir.”

“Thank you, Jeeves. Incredible! I don’t believe it.”

Context: Bertie Wooster’s linguistic idiosyncrasies, as exemplified in this scene from The Code of the Woosters, Chapter 5, highlight both his eccentricity and his dependence on the more sophisticated Jeeves, his valet.

Malapropisms in media

Famous examples of malapropisms can be found in films and television shows, with a few becoming widely recognized and integrated into everyday language, like the following example from The Three Stooges.

Malapropism example in media
Meaning: “I resemble that remark.”

Intended meaning: “I resent that remark.”

Context: This malapropism, often attributed to Curly Howard of The Three Stooges, has entered the popular vernacular and might be heard in casual conversation.

The character Archie Bunker from the 1970s sitcom All in the Family was known for his malapropisms and other verbal blunders, which contributed to the show’s comedic charm while satirizing the narrow-minded attitudes that Bunker represented.

Malapropism example in media
Malapropism: “Patience is a virgin.”

Intended meaning: “Patience is a virtue.”

Context: This malapropism is typical of the character Archie Bunker from the sitcom All in the Family, who often found himself in situations that highlighted his lack of sophistication and education, while simultaneously endearing him to the audience.

Malaphor vs malapropism

Malaphors and malapropisms are both humorous linguistic errors that involve mixing up words. However, whereas malapropisms rely on the confusion of individual words, malaphors mix metaphors, aphorisms, or idiomatic expressions.

For example, “We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it” is a malaphor that combines the idioms “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it” and “to burn one’s bridges.”

The word “malaphor” is a combination (or portmanteau) of the words “malapropism” and “metaphor.”

Malaphor vs Mondegreen

A mondegreen is the linguistic phenomenon of mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase in a way that gives it a new meaning. This confusion is often in the context of misheard song lyrics, poetry, or dialogue.

For example, in the Jimi Hendrix song “Purple Haze,” listeners have often misheard the lyrics “Excuse me while I kiss the sky” as “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.”

Mondegreens are similar to both malapropisms and malaphors in that they mix up words or phrases in a humorous way. However, Mondegreens stem from mishearing or misinterpreting, whereas malapropisms and malaphors involve misspeaking.

Frequently asked questions about malapropisms

What is the difference between a malapropism and a pun?

Malapropisms and puns are similar, but they have key differences:

  • Malapropisms are usually unintentional on the part of the speaker or character. They typically don’t aim to highlight double meanings.
  • Puns are typically used deliberately. They rely on multiple meanings of the same word (or similar-sounding words) to achieve a double entendre.
What is the difference between a malapropism and a spoonerism?

Malapropisms and spoonerisms are both humorous linguistic errors and literary devices. However, there is a key difference:

  • Malapropisms confuse similar-sounding words.
  • Spoonerisms mix up the initial sounds of multiple words within a phrase.

For example, “You have tasted two whole worms” (meaning “You have wasted two whole terms”) is a classic spoonerism from a 1911 issue of The Strand Magazine.

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Magedah Shabo

Magedah is an author, editor, and educator who has empowered thousands of students to become better writers.