Wordplay Wednesday – malapropisms

The term malapropism comes from a play called ‘The Rivals’ by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, which was first performed in 1775. This play featured a character called Mrs Malaprop who frequently misspoke, with great comic effect. Her name, of course, comes from the French term mal รก propos, meaning inopportune or not to the purpose.

When someone uses a malapropism it is because:

  • They’ve used a word that was not what they intended, given the context
  • The word sounds similar to the one intended
  • The word used actually means something different (i.e. it is not a made-up word)

Malapropisms are often the same part of speech, begin or end in the same way, or have the same rhythm when spoken.

Here are some expamples from ‘The Rivals’:

  • ‘Promise to forget this fellow, to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.’ (obliterate)
  • ‘She might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying.’ (comprehend)
  • ‘He’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.’ (alligator)
  • ‘He is the very pineapple of politeness.’ (pinnacle)

Here are two examples from ‘The Merchant of Venice’, both spoken by Launcelot:

  • ‘Certainly [Shylock] is the very devil incarnal.’ (incarnate)
  • ‘That is the very defect of the matter sir.’ (effect)

Some other funny examples:

  • Dad says the monster is just a pigment of my imagination. (figment)
  • He’s a wolf in cheap clothing. (sheep’s)
  • My friend has extra-century perception. (sensory)


President George W. Bush was famous for some of his malapropisms, and not without good reason:

  • ‘We cannot let terrorists or rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile.’
  • ‘It will take time to restore chaos and order.’
  • ‘They have miscalculated me as a leader.’
  • ‘I am mindful not only of preserving executive powers for myself, but for my predecessors as well.’
  • ‘We need an energy bill that encourages consumption.’