Malapropisms — Say it Isn’t So

Cartoon Stock, Dan Reynolds dre 510

From WIKIPEDIA, the free encyclopedia: A malapropism (also called a Dogberryism) is the use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound (which is often a paronym), resulting in a nonsensical, often humorous utterance. An example is Yogi Berra’s statement: “Texas has a lot of electrical votes,” rather than “electoral votes”. The word malapropism comes ultimately from the French mal à propos meaning “inappropriate” via “Mrs. Malaprop”, a character in the Richard Brinsley Sheridan comedy The Rivals (1775) who habitually misused her words. Dogberryism comes from “Officer Dogberry”, the name of a character in the William Shakespeare play Much Ado About Nothing. These are the two best-known fictional characters who made this kind of error — there are many other examples, such as Leo Gorcey’s character “Slip” in The Bowery Boys. Malapropisms also occur as errors in natural speech. Malapropisms are often the subject of media attention, especially when made by politicians or other prominent individuals. The philosopher Donald Davidson has noted that malapropisms show the complex process through which the brain translates thoughts into language.

What does it matter if we use a word that isn’t exactly the ultimate, perfect, absolute match for what we’re trying to say?

  • we confuse the reader, therefore
  • we annoy the reader
  • it makes us look like we merely ran off at the mouth and let fly with whatever the hell came into our heads
  • it makes us look either too cheap — or maybe just too damned superior? — to hire an editor who would find and fix these errors for us
  • it will make our readers laugh at us (or at worst, cry with frustration at having wasted x number of dollars on one of our books)

I would suggest that the only time an author should use a malapropism is in dialogue, for only one character per book, and in only one book per lifetime of that author (unless it’s a series).

The following poem [thank you, Carol Stephen] sums up the evil of the malapropism in a delightful manner.

Reprehending the Meaning

We live in a doggie dog world where the early bird
gets to squirm, everyone striding to be first among sequels
starring the same old horse of a different collar, ridden with insecurity.
A glitch in time craves twine but forfeits weapons of mass production:
the whole wall of tacks. To the victim go the soils of spore,
yet the sun always sets on the blessed.

As sure as knight follows Dei, don’t is a contraption beyond
my apprehension. In my Last will and tentacle, when I’m dead
from cardinal arrest and long years of very close veins, I bequeath
an expensive pendulum taken from the neck of a wolf in cheap clothing,
a man of carnival instinctuals unparalyzed in history since Michelangelo
painted the Sixteenth Chapel.

He was a man of great statue, headstrong as an allegory.
I have no delusions to the past. I have extra-century perception.
The hookeries and massageries turned the whole world
into Sodom and Glocca Morra, the flood damage so bad
they had to evaporate the city, creating dysentery among the ranks.

And still, a sudden thunderstorm wrecks havoc
in my garden of wood and weevil. Only the lettuce survives.
We dine on salad, sprinkled with some of those neutrons.
They crunch, but the sound falls on left years.
We are too long in the gravy.

August 5, 2015 © Carol A. Stephen


Similar to the malapropism is the use of creative flare to change a familiar cliché or to mix a metaphor. A character (one please!) could do this in dialogue to show his naïveté but we must not abuse clichés or metaphors in narrative.

Examples of mixed metaphors:


Next Post — Author Intrusion & Other Writing Crimes

Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them:

… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story (fiction):


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