Do You Have Malapropism?

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Apr 05, 2014

"This is unparalyzed in the state’s history.”
Gib Lewis, Texas Speaker of the House

The art and science of communication never cease to amaze me. Sometimes my most diligent efforts to get a message across fail while some of my most casual efforts leave a huge impact.

Of course, language can be extremely ambiguous. Take the word “cat.” Depending on where it is in a sentence, it can mean a little furry house pet we hold in our arms or a wild animal chasing a gazelle on the Serengeti Plain of East Africa. “Cat” can also be an abbreviated word for the Caterpillar Company’s bulldozer (i.e., CAT). A couple of generations ago someone who was extremely “modern and sophisticated” would have been known as a “cool cat.”

Yogi Berra, the star catcher for the New York Yankees baseball team, began his career in 1946. By the time he retired in 1965, he had won the American League Most Valuable Player award three times, led the Yankees to 10 World Series championships and competed in 18 All-Star games. 

But he has also become a cultural icon for his distortion of words and phrases. Some people believe that his misuse of language was the result of subpar intelligence, yet Berra successfully played one of the most mentally and physically challenging positions in the sport. And, his role as a manager equally demanded enormous intelligence that let everyone know that his communication quirks were more charming than reflective of less intelligence. 

These “Yogisms” make all of us smile.
  • “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”
  • “You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.”
  • “Whatever you do, don’t do nothing.”
  • “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
  • “You can observe a lot just by watching.”
A fascinating communication misstep revolves around the malapropism. The term originates from a character named “Mrs. Malaprop” in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play, “The Rivals.” Mrs. Malaprop frequently misspeaks (to great comic effect) by using words which don’t mean what she intends but which sound similar to words that do.

Even her name, which means literally “poorly placed,” is a play on words. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of “malapropos” in English is from 1630 and the first person to have used the word “malaprop” as a speech error was Lord Byron in 1814. The synonym “dogberryism” comes from the 1598 Shakespearean play “Much Ado About Nothing,” in which the character Dogberry utters many malapropisms to humorous effect.

Examples of malapropisms in the play are when Mrs. Malaprop says "Illiterate him from your memory," instead of "obliterate," and when she says "she's as headstrong as an allegory," instead of "alligator." 

Malapropisms do not only occur in order to generate a laugh. They also can pop up as a kind of speech error in ordinary speech. Bertie Ahern of Ireland warned his country against “upsetting the apple tart” (i.e. apple cart) of his country’s success.

Here are a few more:
  • Former Chicago mayor, Richard J. Daley, referred to a tandem bicycle as a “tantrum bicycle” and made mention of “Alcoholics Unanimous” (i.e., Alcoholics Anonymous).
  • In August 2013, Australian politician, Tony Abbott, addressed an audience of Liberty Party members stating, “No one, however smart, however well educated, however experienced is the ‘suppository’ of all wisdom” (i.e., repository).
  • It was Yogi Berra who said, “Texas has a lot of electrical votes” (i.e., electoral).
Former president, George W. Bush, was known for his malapropisms.
  • “It will take time to restore chaos and order.”
  • “I am mindful not only of preserving executive powers for myself, but for predecessors as well.”
  • “We need an energy bill that encourages consumption.”
  • “We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile.”
Accurate communication can be extremely challenging because, as Yogi Berra said, “We made too many wrong mistakes.” 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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