Trivia · Word of the week

Word of the week: malapropism

Unlike other figures of speech that I learnt about at school, malapropism is one that stuck first time. I had to look up words like zeugma and synecdoche many times, but not malapropism. From the age of 12 onwards I knew that it takes its name from Mrs Malaprop, a character in Sheridan’s play “The Rivals”. She was known for mixing her words up, for saying things like “she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile” (confusing “allegory” with “alligator”).

The quote in the last sentence featured in the ITV quiz show “The Chase” last week. There was a question which asked for the name of the character who said it, in Sheridan’s play “The Rivals”. “Mrs Malaprop” was one of the three possible answers. At any point in the last forty years or more I would have answered this question correctly. The contestant got it wrong. The Chaser (Paul Sinha) got it right. He explained what a malapropism was and came up with another example, keeping someone “in suspenders” rather than “in suspense”. He also mentioned that Ethel Skinner in “Eastenders”, played by Gretchen Franklin, was well known for them.

While watching “The Chase” I could think of only one example of a malapropism from real life, from someone my mother knew in the 1970s. She had been to Cambridge for the day, and had a lovely time. She had a go on one of those flat-bottomed vessels that glide along the River Cam, “a pooch” she called it, rather than “a punt”.

Over the last few days I have dug into my memory for other examples and come up with only one more, something a work colleague said, back in the 1980s. She described a decision as “sperm of the moment” rather than “spur of the moment”. She’d a glass or two of wine by this time so I didn’t correct her. I even managed to keep a straight face, which still strikes me as quite an achievement all these years later.

Unable to recall any more malapropisms, from fiction or from real life, I resorted to a web search, and found this page of quotes from Mrs Malaprop herself, on Many years ago a preview for a new TV comedy, which was mostly favourable, described the show as “not laugh-out-loud funny”. It has become a favourite catchphrase when watching any comic offering that fails to raise a smile: “It’s not exactly laugh-out-loud funny, is it?” That’s how I feel on reading each of Mrs Malaprop’s original lines, but maybe they had 18th Century audiences rolling in the aisles.

Here’s another page from, with two examples that I enjoyed: “He’s a wolf in cheap clothing” and “Michelangelo painted the Sixteenth Chapel”. This one features a classic from former US Vice President Dan Quayle: “Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.” Otherwise, as with misheard lyrics, I find that there are surprisingly few memorable examples. I prefer malaphors, and have just re-read my piece about them from last October. I had forgotten that I had already used it to describe malapropisms, and re-drafted much of its opening sentence in this piece without realizing it. I’ll leave it as it is, and leave you with a final malapropism from real life which has come to mind while typing this paragraph. We know someone who grew up locally who has cerebral palsy. He has been in a wheelchair for most of his life and will be unable to live an independent life. My son met him many times when he was younger and always referred to his condition as “terrible palsy”. I corrected him a few times, but then stopped. His choice of words seemed so much more appropriate.



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