What Is a Malapropism? | Definition & Examples

Rhetoric updated on  December 6, 2023 3 min read
A malapropism occurs when a word is accidentally replaced with a similar-sounding word (e.g., “prosperous” and “preposterous”).

This often results in a nonsensical or humorous statement. In literature and comedy, writers sometimes deliberately use malapropisms to inject humor or add color into their work.

Malapropism examples
He was a man of great statue (stature).
She hurried to the doctor to get the anecdote (antidote).
My new winter jacket has really good installation (insulation).

Malapropisms do not only occur in fiction. They also occur in everyday speech.

What is a malapropism?

A malapropism is a type of linguistic error that occurs when we confuse a word or phrase with a similar-sounding one that has a completely different meaning (e.g., using “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes”). Malapropisms turn serious statements into funny ones, often without the speaker realizing it.

The term “malapropism” is derived from the character of Mrs. Malaprop, who appeared in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 play The Rivals. In the play, Mrs. Malaprop commits several verbal blunders. For example, she describes another character as “the very pine-apple of politeness" (instead of “pinnacle”). Over the years, the term has come to signify a funny slip of the tongue.

Malapropism examples

Malapropisms are often used intentionally as a literary device to create humor or absurdity and to satirize people pretending to be more sophisticated than they really are. Famous examples can also be found in pop culture more generally.

Malapropisms in literature

In William Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing, the chief of the citizens’ police (a character named Dogberry) often accidentally uses malapropisms while attempting to appear more intelligent.

Because the character of Dogberry became synonymous with verbal blunders, malapropisms are sometimes called “dogberries” or “dogberryisms.” One example can be seen in act III, scene V.

Malapropism example in literature
“One word, sir. Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons, and we would have them this morning examined before your worship.”
In this sentence, what Dogberry means is that the watch apprehended two suspicious persons.

Another example can be found in act IV, scene II.


Malapropism example in literature
“O villain! Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this.”
In this sentence, Dogberry means that they will be condemned to everlasting damnation.

Malapropisms in pop culture

When politicians and other public figures use malapropisms, they sometimes become part of pop culture.

Malapropisms famous examples
“We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile (hostage) or hold our allies hostile (hostage).” 一Former President George W. Bush
“Texas has a lot of electrical (electoral) votes.” 一New York Yankees baseball player Yogi Berra.
“I might just fade into Bolivian (oblivion).” 一Former professional boxer Mike Tyson

Malaphor vs malapropism

Malaphor and malapropism are both accidental language errors. However, they should not be confused.

A malaphor is the unintentional mashing of two idioms or phrases that results in unusual or humorous statements. For example, the phrase “it’s not rocket surgery” blends together the phrases “it’s not rocket science” and “it’s not brain surgery.” The term “malaphor” is a portmanteau of the words “malapropism” and “aphorism.”

Whereas malapropism refers to the unintentional replacement of a word with a similar-sounding one, malaphor blends two phrases into one. In both cases, the speaker’s intended meaning is usually clear.

Malapropism vs spoonerism

A malapropism may be confused with another verbal mistake called a spoonerism. With malapropisms, a word is substituted with another word that sounds similar, even though their meanings are different.

With spoonerisms, the initial sounds of a word are substituted with those of the next word. Examples of spoonerisms include “ kinquering congs” instead of “conquering kings” and “belly jeans” instead of “jelly beans.”

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


Common mistakes

Commonly confused words

Rhetoric

Whoa or woah

Advisor vs adviser

Metonymy

Theirs or their's

Accept vs except

Synecdoche

Ours or our's

Affect vs effect

Verbal irony

Forty or fourty

Among vs between

Irony

Sence or sense

Anymore vs any more

Grawlix


Frequently asked questions about malapropism

What is the difference between a malapropism and a pun?

Malapropisms and puns are similar in that they both replace a word with a similar-sounding word. However, they differ in their nature and effect.

A malapropism is an unintentional language error that typically has a humorous result (e.g., mixing up “amphibious” and “ambidextrous”). Malapropisms are generally mistakes, but they can sometimes be used for comedic effect (e.g., when a writer intentionally creates a character who accidentally uses malapropisms).

On the other hand, a pun is a deliberate play on words. Puns usually exploit similar-sounding words and double meaning to generate laughs, show wit, or create irony.

In other words, a malapropism occurs by mistake and results in a nonsensical or funny statement that the speaker never intended, whereas a pun is intentional and is used for comedic or rhetorical purposes.

What is the difference between a malapropism and a spoonerism?

Malapropisms and spoonerisms are both forms of language errors, but they should not be confused.

A malapropism is a verbal mistake that involves similar-sounding words with different meanings, like “monogamous” and “monotonous.”

A spoonerism, on the other hand, accidentally mixes up the sounds of letters or syllables of different words (e.g., “chork pops” instead of “pork chops”).

In short, malapropisms involve the unintentional distortion of words with similar sounds, while spoonerisms involve the swapping of sounds or letters between words.

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Kassiani

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.

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