Malapropism examples are everywhere.
When baseball Hall of Famer (and mangler of language) Yogi Berra said Texas has a lot of electrical votes, we laughed because we knew he meant to say electoral votes.
They’re so common, maybe you’ve even accidentally let one fly sometime.
So why a post on malapropism examples? Because knowing a little about their history, what makes them what they are and how they become part of our vernacular (like Bushisms) can really spice up your writing. Especially if you’re writing fiction.
So in this post, we’ll:
- Define malapropisms and dive into their history.
- Share a bunch of examples.
- Get into some nitty ditty on writing malaprops.
Ready for a few laughs? Let’s go.
What Is Malapropism?
The term malapropism comes from the French phrase mal à propo (inappropriate), which confuses one word for a similar sounding word (an incorrect word) that has an entirely different meaning. It’s the clash of meaning AND the unintentional misuse of the wrong word vs. the correct word, which creates the humorous effect.
Malapropisms are a perfectly human mistake in language. So human, and funny, they’re often used by writers and comics for comic effect.
Here are a few examples to illustrate.
Common Examples of Malapropism
1. Prosperous vs. Preposterous
All he ever wanted in life was to become preposterous.
A malaprop’s comedic effect is particularly strong when misaligned words clash the way they do in this example.
2. Monotonous vs. Monogamous
Monotony means being married to one person.
In this example, boring and owing fidelity to but one person in marriage may seem far-flung from each other, but when used in malapropism, it’s both comical and commentary.
3. Installation vs. Insulation
These coats got lots of installation. – Mike Smith, NFL Coach
Their obvious differences in meaning don’t keep some people from getting these mixed up.
4. Erratic vs. Erotic
Our loving was erratic.
His public behavior has been bizarre and erotic.
In this example, two very similar words — one meaning unstable and the other a carnal form of love — comic results when used as a malapropism.
5. Stature vs. Statue
He was a man of great statue.
The influence of a person vs. an inanimate representation of the same, these words have created at least one memorable unintended malapropism, birthed by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.
6. Jive vs. Jibe
Jive is a dance (and in some quarters, speech) style, while Jibe is a verb describing how two things complement each other. Ham and cheese jibe, but they really don’t jive.
Malapropism Examples in Literature: Creative Confusion?
Let’s look at malapropism examples in literature.
Malapropisms are in boldface, while the intended words, if needed, are in (parentheses).
William Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing
Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended (apprehended) two auspicious (suspicious) persons.
Constable Dogberry’s malapropisms gave birth to the term dogberryisms, a pre-rivals term used for malapropisms.
Mark Twain: Huck Finn
I was most putrified (petrified) with astonishment.
Huck Finn (on the King speaking at Peter Wilk’s funeral)
And every little while he fetched in his funeral orgies again, till the duke writes on a little scrap of paper, “Obsequies, you old fool!”
Malapropism Examples in Popular Culture: Recorded and Replayed for Prosperity (or Posterity?)
Nearly always unintentional, malaprops are especially funny when spawned by famous people, as the following attest.
Justin Bieber (2012) Interview with David Letterman
I’m not going for the Sixteenth (Sistine) Chapel look.
Sarah Palin (2011) Interview with Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren
I- I haven’t heard the president say that we are at war… do we use the term ‘intervention’, do we use ‘war’, do we w- use uh ‘squirmish‘ (skirmish), what is it?
Sarah Palin (2010) Twitter Feed and Speech
Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.
…they could refudiate what it is.
Sarah Palin earned a few laughs when she blended refute with repudiate in her speech.
George H.W. Bush (1992) Presidential Campaign Appearance
Nitty Ditty Nitty Gritty Great Big Bird. (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band)
George W. Bush (2001) Des Moines, Iowa & Washington, D.C.
We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile (hostage) or hold our allies hostile.
I am mindful not only of preserving executive powers for myself, but for predecessors (successors) as well.
Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley
O’Hare Airport is the crosswords (crossroads) of the nation.
Dan Quayle, Vice President
Republicans understand the importance of bondage (the bonds) between a mother and child.
I always keep Natural Light Beer on hand while I watch these athletes perspiring (aspiring) to achieve victory, ’cause these sporting computations (competitions) make me so dehybernated.
Mike Tyson, Boxer
I might just fade into Bolivian (oblivion).
Hank Bullough, former Head Coach, Buffalo Bills
Well, there’s no need to get your dandruff (dander) up.
Mike Smith, NFL Coach
Be sure and put some of those neutrons (croutons) on it.
Danny Ozark, Major League Baseball Manager
It’s beyond my apprehension (comprehension).
Charles Shackleford, NBA Player
I can dribble with my right hand, and I can dribble with my left hand. I guess I’m amphibious (ambidextrous).
Wes Westrum, MLB Player-
Well, that was a cliff-dweller (cliff-hanger).
Jason Whitten, former NFL Player and Current TV Announcer
He pulled a rabbit out of his head (hat).
Countless Baseball Writers & Announcers
The pitcher has been scuffling (struggling) his last few games.
TV & Movies
She’s like an albacore (albatross) around my neck.
Why not? Create a little dysentery (dissent) among the ranks.
What, with Vito passing, and all that entrails (entails).
All In the Family
You know, that’s what you call inflammable (infallible—Archie Bunker, commenting on the Pope).
I ain’t a man of carnival instinctuals (carnal instincts) like you.
Why Do Writers Use Malapropism?
Hollywood screenwriters and literary greats like William Shakespeare and Mark Twain use malapropisms to inject humor, character and local flavor into their writing.
Like those who penned stories of New Jersey gangsters and working class guys from Queens, malapropisms were favorites among Southwestern Humorists like Twain, who brought them together with local dialect to lampoon pretension or stupidity. The King, using “funeral orgies” in lieu of “obsequies” is a case in point for how this literary device can be used.
Still other writers, like A.A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh), will often use malapropisms to portray the innocence of children (heffalumps and woozles).
Used well, malapropisms are a wonderful tool in the writer’s repertoire.
How to Write a Malapropism
Common malaprops like A rolling stone gathers no moths (moss) and You could have knocked me over with a fender (feather) are easy examples of how to create malapropisms — simply find a colloquialism and bend it to create instances of humor or irony.
But common, everyday vernacular works just as well. Find an instance where you’ll use a more complex word, decide on your humor angle and let ‘er rip, as we do here:
His incessant banter is a dancer (cancer) in my ear.
When using malaprops as a writing technique, just remember that the word used to replace the original must:
- Have a different meaning (the more they clash, the better).
- Have a similar sound as the original.
- Be recognizable to the listener.
How Did Malapropisms Start?
As one of the literary terms in the English language, malapropisms have their origin in The Rivals, produced in 1775 by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. In his play, a character named Mrs. Malaprop supplied one laugh upon another to the audience with malapropisms like:
Illiterate (obliterate) him quite from your memory.
He’s as headstrong as an allegory (alligator) on the banks of the Nile.
As you’ve probably already noted, malapropisms had their earliest use as a literary device in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the latter giving us this memorable line from Bottom:
…and he himself must speak through, saying thus, or to the same defect (effect).
Don’t Get Confused with Malapropism’s Cousins
Malapropisms are often confused with the following verbal miscues:
Spoonerisms occur where the order of word sounds are confused. For example:
I sure ma’am, occifer. (I sure am, officer).
I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.
Ever look up the lyrics to your favorite song and discover you weren’t even close to the right words?
Toto: I left my brains (bless the rains) down in Africa…
It’s not just songs, though. It’s anytime you hear a phrase wrongly and confuse your meaning with the intended meaning.
An eggcorn is hearing a spoken word (like acorn) and then confusing it with another that sounds similar but has no meaning in itself. The catch is that the eggcorn doesn’t really change the meaning of the word it was confused with.
My nephew, upon hearing the word adult as a young child, used the eggcorn mendult. Funny word, same meaning.
In Great Expectations, Pip’s friend, Joe Gargery says…
I’m dead afeared (afraid) of going wrong in the way of not doing what’s right by a woman.
A Freudian Slip is saying something unintentionally, the meaning of which may reveal an unconscious desire of the speaker. That said, it’s hard to imagine what was happening when President George H.W. Bush said the following:
We have had great sex-I mean success…
Don’t Take Malapropism Examples for Gran…ted
Malapropisms are funny because they’re often unintentional, and the effect of what’s actually said is so different from what the speaker meant. They reveal something both about the speaker and we as audiences, who find laughter in a moment of another person simply being human.
As a writer? It’s a cool way to bring character and flavor into your writing. So, give malapropisms a shock. I mean shot. And have fun adding a little life to your writing.
Be well, and good luck.