malapropism

The use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, resulting in a nonsensical, often humorous utterance. An example: “I am not under the affluence of alcohol” (instead of “influence”). Another is:  “We have just ended our physical year.” (Physical instead fiscal.)

The word “malapropism” (and its earlier variant “malaprop”) comes from a character named Mrs. Malaprop in Richard 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,’ meaning ‘inappropriate,’ derived from the French phrase mal à propos (literally “poorly placed”). The Oxford English Dictionary says 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. For example, “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons,” when he means “two suspicious persons.”

Modern writers make use of malapropisms in novels, cartoons, films, television, and other media. The device is used to convey that the speaker or character is flustered, bothered, unaware or confused and as a result cannot employ proper diction.

Stan Laurel, for example, in Sons Of The Desert, 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 asked a policeman, “Don’t you think you’re bounding over your steps?” meaning “stepping over your bounds.” 

Malapropisms also occur as an error in ordinary speech. Welsh Conservative leader Andrew Davies, encouraged the Conservative party conference to make breakfast (Brexit) a success. Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach of Ireland, warned his country against “upsetting the apple tart” (i.e., apple cart) of his country’s economic success.

Former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley referred to a tandem bicycle as a “tantrum bicycle” and made mention of “Alcoholics Unanimous” (Alcoholics Anonymous).

Texas governor Rick Perry has been known to commonly commit malapropisms, for example describing states as “lavatories of innovation and democracy” instead of “laboratories.”

Baseball player Yogi Berra had a lot of unintentional fun with language. He said, ”Texas has a lot of electrical votes,” rather than “electoral votes.”

Yogi Berra also said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” I’m going to do just that. I’m going to stop playing with words and go play with breakfast.

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