Friday, 1 April 2011

Mind My Malapropisms

This diversion on malapropisms is prompted by a recent real-life example from my sister. Searching for an alternative to a wedding hat she went to a milliner and asked to see their fornicators.

For now, I’ll leave you to work out  what she meant, as I will with the examples below – answers to all at the foot of this posting.

First, though a definition: a malpropism is the subsititution of one word or phrase for another that sounds similar, usually with comic effect. Malapropisms are almost always unintended, whether spoken in real life or in fiction. The word originates from a fictional character with a habitual tendency for  choosing the wrong word, Mrs Malaprop from Richard Sheridan’s play The Rivals. Here are my two favourites from Mrs Malaprop:

He is the very pineapple of politeness.
She’s as headstrong as a allegory on the banks of the Nile.

Sheridan, however, writing in the eighteenth century, was by no means the first to use malaproprisms to send up his own characters and highlight their lack of education. One of the best pre-Sheridan examples comes from Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing, where the constable Dogberry has the affliction:

Comparisons are odorous.
Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons.

Shakespeare makes frequent use of the technique for his low or artisan characters (Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Elbow in Measure for Measure, Launcelot in A Merchant of Venice, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet ). Charles Dickens does the same, most famously with Mrs Sarah Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit:

It’s murder, and I’m the witness for the persecution.

These days malapropism is not so much used by playwrights and novelists, but has become something of a modern tradition among comedians and comic characters. Here are some twentieth- and twenty-first century examples:

She said honesty was the best politics. (Stan Laurel)

I heard the ocean is infatuated with sharks. (Stan Laurel)
You mean infuriated. (Oliver Hardy)

I can say that without fear of contraception. (Hylda Baker)

What are you incinerating? (Harold in Steptoe & Son)

I myself often use the wrong worms, and that is why I was erected Charming of the Society (Ronnie Barker)

Good to be back on the old terracotta. (Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses)

Shuffling from shell shock (Steve Delaney as Count Arthur Strong)

Get back in your sauce for the goose for another million years. (Count Arthur Strong)

Brudder, you got a preposition, and that thing will give you a conclusion of the brain. (Bugs Bunny)

Where are my mannerisms? (Tigger in Winnie the Pooh)

Let’s talk about a very tattoo subject. (Ali G)

The ironing is delicious. (Bart in The Simpsons)

In her elastic stockings, next to her very close veins. (Archie Bunker)

Patence is a virgin. (Archie Bunker)

I was given an old tomato, leave or get thrown out. (Will and Grace)

Do you take this man to be your awful wedded husband? (Rowan Atkinson as the vicar in Four Weddings and a Funeral – a steal from Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas)

Malapropism is not purely the province of the fictional character. Wherever there is a mouth to put a foot in ... here are a few real-life examples from the modern era, first some well-known names:

On a day of atonement I can’t afford to be sick. (golfer Sam Snead)

I might just fade into Bolivian, know what I mean?  (boxer Mike Tyson)

We’re all in the same bucket. (football manager Sir Bobby Robson)

The King of Spain (erroneously printed on mugs commemorating the testimonial of England spin bowler Ashley Giles)

Upsetting the apple tart of our economic success (politician Bertie Ahern)

I never condemn wrongdoing in any area (Bertie Ahern again)

Welcome to President Bush, Mrs Bush and my fellow astronauts (politician Dan Quayle)

Refudiate, misunderestimate, wee-weed up. English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it. (A tweet sent by politician Sarah Palin in response to being ridiculed for inventing new words – proudly transposing her ignorance onto the side of literary genius.)

And from forum postings (thanks to the contributors):

They are nice condoms.

She’ll be talking about one thing, and then goes off on a tandem to change the subject.

She fired a shot across his bowels.

My son had a wart removed – they gave him a local euthenasia.

It’s a storm in  a teapot.

He’s a student at the University of Vagina

He’s a wolf in cheap clothing.

The swine flu has reached pandemonium stage.

Finally, one from a conference menu that misuses the same word as the eponymous Mrs Malaprop:

If you suffer from any allegories, please make these known to the catering staff.

OK did you identify and mentally correct all the malapropisms in this posting? Here’s a checklist. If you have spotted any that are not on the checklist, they’re probably (unintentionally) mine.

Fornicators Fascinators
Pineapple Pinnacle
Allegory Alligator
Odorous Odious
Comprehended Apprehended
Auspicious Suspicious
Persecution Prosecution
Politics Policy
Infatuated/Infuriated Infested
Contraception Contradiction
Incinerating Insinuating
Worms Words
Erected Elected
Charming Chairman
Terracotta Terra Firma
Shuffling Suffering
Sauce for the goose Sarcophagus
Preposition Proposition
Conclusion Contusion
Mannerisms Manners
Tattoo Taboo
Ironing Irony
Very close veins Varicose veins
Virgin Virtue
Old tomato Ultimatum
Awful Lawful
Atonement A tournament
Bolivian Oblivion
Bucket Boat
King of Spain King of Spin
Apple tart Apple cart
Condemn Condone
Astronauts Americans
Refudiate Repudiate
Misunderestimate Underestimate
Wee-weed up Geed up
Condoms Condominiums
Tandem Tangent
Bowels Bows
Euthenasia Anaesthetic
Teapot Teacup
University of Vagina University of Virginia
Cheap clothing Sheep’s clothing
Pandemonium Pandemic
Allegories Allergies

And here, for a bit of fun, is the whole of Ronnie Barker’s fabulous Mispronunciation sketch.

If you enjoyed this posting you may also enjoy My favourite mondegreens.


  1. The Pineapple of Politeness!

    What a lovely turn of phrase.

    Just to say thanks for your reading at Jesmond Oxfam Store today, I thoroughly enjoyed it and whilst turnout was small, it was still very interesting.

    I may work for a funder, but I have a genuine interest in writing, hope that came through rather than the grant head. Thanks again, Jane, the Community Foundation Girl in the spotty dress with red hair!

  2. I laughed out loud at your sister in the millinery shop. Classic, I'm sure she was so embarrassed when she'd realised what she'd said!

  3. Thanks for the kind remarks, gingerdolly, and for your presence at the reading today - I fed off your enthusiasm. Christine, I must tell you my sister is beyond embarrassment. Too many beers in too many bars - and she's celebrating her 70th birthday this month. I must try and remember to blog about the party.

  4. Just heard another good malapropism in the context of sports commentating, while watching tonight's Champions League match Real Madrid v Tottenham Hotspur. Ray Wilkins, observing how lucky Spurs were not to give away a penalty, said, 'Spurs really should count their chickens.'

    (Er, it's 'blessings', Ray.)

  5. I see Sarah Palin has been at it it again, talking about the action in Libya: "Do we use the term intervention, do we use war, do we use squirmishes? What is it?"

    What indeed? Squirmishes? See my retweet of the U-Tube moment at the right of my blog or link to