I know a real-life Mrs. Malaprop, and it’s impossible not to grin when she speaks.
Examples: She said she didn’t think her skin rash was generic because no one else in her family had it. She said that when she mentioned her favorite uncle, she meant Uncle Joe pacifically. She described a man she disliked as a wolf in cheap clothing. She recalled a necklace with a diamond pendulum and mentioned an aunt who wore tight elastic stockings because she had very close veins.
Those are malapropisms, which confuse words of similar sound, thereby producing an amusing or ridiculous effect. In the examples above, my real-life Mrs. Malaprop confused generic/genetic, pacifically/specifically, cheap/sheep’s, pendulum/pendant and very close/varicose.
Such word confusion has brought grins and guffaws since at least 1775, when Richard Sheridan created the character of Mrs. Malaprop for his play “The Rivals.” We take the word malapropism from that character, who said such things as: “If I reprehend any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue and a nice derangement of epitaphs” — thus confounding in one sentence the words apprehend, vernacular, arrangement and epithets. Sheridan most likely borrowed this character’s name from the word “malapropos,” which means “inappropriate” and in turn derives from the French “mal à propos.”
A malapropism is also often called a “Dogberryism,” after a character in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” The character Dogberry, like Mrs. Malaprop, used incorrect words in place of words with similar sounds, and with similarly humorous results.
Contemporary characters deal in malapropisms as well. A character in “The Sopranos,” searching for the word “dissension,” came up with “creating a little dysentery among the ranks.”
Television’s Archie Bunker was notorious for linguistic faux pas:
“The hookeries and massageries … the whole world is turning into a regular Sodom and Glocca Morra [Gomorrah].”
“Buy one of them battery-operated transvestite [transistor] radios.”
“A woman doctor is only good for women’s problems … like your groinocology [gynecology].”
I recently received a thank you note that said I was a real trooper — instead of trouper. And along the way, I’ve heard of pigments of our imagination, extra-century perception and fire distinguishers. I’ve heard a suspenseful work referred to as a cliff-dweller. I’ve heard that Michelangelo painted the Sixteenth Chapel, that punctuation means not being late, and that the flood threat was so great they had to evaporate the city.
The examples above confuse pigment/figment; extra-century/extra-sensory; distinguisher/extinguisher; cliff-dweller/cliff-hanger; sixteenth chapel/Sistine Chapel; punctuation/punctuality; and evaporate/evacuate.
Former Vice President Dan Quayle confused “bonding” and “bondage” when he said that Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.
Former President George W. Bush so excelled in malapropisms — such as the celebrated “misunderestimate” — that we call those utterances “Bushisms.” He said a new law would help collect intelligence on “weapons of mass production.” He also said:
“They have miscalculated me as a leader.”
“I am mindful not only of preserving executive powers for myself but for my predecessors as well.”
“It will take time to restore chaos and order.”
Texas politicians seem to have a special flair for malapropism. Gib Lewis, former speaker of the house, said something was unparalyzed (rather than unparalleled) in the state’s history. He also said that something would be reduced through nutrition (rather than attrition). And former Texas governor Rick Perry, struggling to name even one of the nine Supreme Court justices, asked: “Montemayor?” (He meant, presumably, Justice Sonia Sotomayor.)
What’s the difference between malapropisms and plain old word errors — I mean the errors we make with tricky and troublesome word pairs such as affect/effect, loath/loathe, infer/imply and the like? Not much. But that small difference is critical. Malapropisms are ludicrous and have a slapstick or burlesque quality, so they entertain us. Mistakes are just … mistakes. Malapropisms amuse us; mistakes annoy us.
And for writers, the biggest mistake of all is annoying the reader. In the next issue of Quill, we’ll discuss those unfunny (but tricky!) word pairs.
Paula LaRocque is author of five books, among them “The Book on Writing.” Her latest fiction is a mystery novel, “Monkey See,” available on Amazon.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blog and website: paulalarocque.com