Meet Mrs Malaprop

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This month we’re looking at words that originate in the literature. We started off by celebrating J.K. Rowling’s birthday and taking a look at Four Made-Up Words from Harry Potter - and, because we love magic here at Spellzone, we also used the word ‘Wizard’ for our weekly Word for Wednesday. We then went back in time took at look at the word ‘quixotic’ which comes from the title character in what is often described as the first ever modern novel: Don Quixote. This week, we’re going to look at a word that comes from a lesser known character, but which describes a rather easy-to-make mistake! Today’s word is: ‘malapropism’.

Who is Mrs Malaprop?

Mrs Malaprop is a character from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals (1775). In the play, she is known for comically misspeaking, using words which sound similar to the words she intends to use but which mean completely different things!

Some of Mrs Malaprop’s mistakes (or malapropisms!) include her saying ‘illiterate him quite from your memory’ when she means ‘obliterate him quite from your memory’, or ‘He is the very pine-apple of politeness!’ when she means ‘He is the very pinnacle of politeness!’.

So what is a malapropism?

The term ‘malapropism’ (or just a ‘malaprop’, as it used to be) refers, then, to mistakes like those made by Mrs Malaprop. Sheridan will have taken the name from the word ‘malapropos’ meaning ‘inappropriate’, which, in turn, derives from the French phrase ‘mal à propos’ which translates to ‘poorly placed. The poet Lord Byron was the first known person, in 1814, to use the term ‘malaprop’ to refer to such a speaking mistake.

Other than ‘malapropism’, are there any words that refer to the same type of mistake?

Mrs Malaprop is by no means the only fictional character who makes this kind of mistake – Shakespeare’s plays, for example, are full of characters who misspeak in this way. The most famous example is Dogberry from the play Much To Do About Nothing which has led to some people referring to a ‘malapropism’ as a ‘Dogberryism’.

Of course, it’s not just characters who slip up with malapropisms – many celebrities have also fallen into this trap. In Britain, ‘malapropisms’, and other types of misspeaking, are sometimes called ‘Colemanballs’ – a term coined by Private Eye magazine after David Coleman who was a BBC sports commentator known for making such mistakes.

One famous figure who was prone to making malapropisms was US president George W. Bush, who once said ‘We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile’ (he meant ‘hostage’!). This, along with many other similar mistakes, has led to some people referring to malapropisms as ‘Bushisms’.

If your name was an adjective, what do you think it would be used to describe? Tweet us or leave a comment either on our Facebook page or in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!

Avani Shah


27 Aug 2013
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