What Is a Malaphor? | Definition & Examples

Rhetoric updated on  March 2, 2024 2 min read

A malaphor is the unintentional combination of two idioms or clichés. This usually results in a unique, humorous statement that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Malaphor examples
It’s water under the dam. (“Water under the bridge” + “Water over the dam”)

You hit the nail on the nose. (“Hit the nail on the head” + “On the nose”)

Don’t burn your bridge at both ends. (“Don’t burn bridges” + “Burn the candle at both ends”)

Some malaphors have been repeated so many times that they’ve become as popular as the original idioms they are derived from (e.g., “She’s walking a thin line”).

What is a malaphor?

A malaphor can be defined as a blend of two phrases or idioms into one, such as “I can read her like the back of my book” (“I can read her like a book” + “I know her like the back of my hand”).

The origin of the word “malaphor” can be traced to 1976, when a writer named Lawrence Harrison coined the term in a Washington Post article entitled “Searching for Malaphors.” The word itself is a portmanteau of “aphorism” and “malapropism.”

Malaphor examples

Because malaphors are unintentional, a lot of examples can be found in pop culture. They often occur when a person is speaking, but they can be found in writing as well.

Funny malaphor examples

In 2013, Yahoo published an article entitled, “Top 5 ways for families to survive the Recession.” In it, they created a malaphor that combined “scratch the surface” and “the tip of the iceberg.”

Malaphor example from Yahoo
“Of course, these tips only scratched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to financial planning and frugality.”

In a 2013 news conference, US President Obama combined “Jedi mind tricks” and “Vulcan mind melds,” causing an outcry from fans of both the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises.

Malaphor example from US President Obama
“Even though most people agree… I’m presenting a fair deal, the fact that they don’t take it means that I should somehow do a Jedi mind-meld with these folks and convince them to do what’s right.”

Malaphor vs malapropism

Malaphors and malapropisms are often confused, but there’s a distinct difference:

  • A malaphor refers to the accidental blending of two idioms.
  • A malapropism refers to the accidental replacement of one word with a similar-sounding word that has an entirely different meaning.
Example: Malaphor vs malapropism
  • Malaphor: That’s no shirt off my nose.
    • This phrase is a malaphor because it blends “that’s no skin off my nose” and “give the shirt off my back.”
  • Malapropism: He was a man of great statue.
    • This phrase is a malapropism because the correct word (stature) was replaced with the similar-sounding word “statue.”

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Rhetoric

Commonly confused words

Fallacies

Symbolism

Possum vs opossum

Straw man fallacy

Play on words

Weather vs whether

Post hoc fallacy

Juxtaposition

Inter vs intra

Fallacy of composition

Paronomasia

To vs too

Tu quoque fallacy

Allusion

Subjective vs objective

Either-or fallacy


Frequently asked questions about malaphor

What is the difference between a malaphor and a mixed metaphor?

A malaphor unintentionally combines two idioms or clichés, whereas mixed metaphorscombine two metaphors to create an illogical comparison. Mixed metaphors can be created on purpose or by accident.

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Paige Pfeifer

Paige teaches QuillBot writers about grammar rules and writing conventions. She has a BA in English, which she received by reading and writing a lot of fiction. That is all she knows how to do.

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