Malapropisms: Writing the Wrong Word

malapropisms say what? selfie-413162_640“Texas has a lot of electrical votes.” –Yogi Berra

A malapropism (or acyrologia) is the use of an incorrect but similar-sounding word in place of the correct word. It was coined from the name of a character, Mrs. Malaprop, who constantly misused and abused her words in the comedy The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. In turn, Mrs. Malaprop’s name ultimately descended from the French phrase mal à propos meaning badly placed or inappropriate.

There are two reasons writers (and others) may get their words mixed up. The first, of course, is the similarity of sound. In the quote above, Yogi Berra was actually referring to electoral votes, but electrical is pretty close. Close, but no cigar.

The second reason is that very often words get modified in common usage, especially old words whose original meanings no longer have a relevance for us today, yet the word has evolved into a new usage and often a new spelling. An example of this is tenterhooks.

Many people say (or write), “I’m on tenderhooks,” believing the word refers to the hooks used by butchers to hang meat so it can tenderize. Actually the word goes back much further than that, back to the middle ages when people used mainly woolen or linen cloth. As the cloth was processed and washed, it was stretched on wooden frames, called tenters, to keep it from shrinking as it dried. The hooks on the tenters that were used to hold the cloth in place were, of course, tenterhooks. The colloquial meaning came to allude to the tension of being forcefully tacked and stretched, and has now evolved to mean any kind of suspenseful tension.

Any word, however, can be accidentally twisted into an inappropriate usage. Some examples of malapropisms might include:

After a detailed investigation, the police comprehended two suspects.

I do believe that man is having a nervous shakedown.

King Omar is the exhausted ruler of his rich kingdom.

If you’re smart, you won’t upset the apple tart.

We had great fun riding together on a tantrum bicycle.

Many people have benefited from joining Alcoholics Unanimous.

Malapropisms amphibious pitcherThere is one place where malapropisms can be used and are not only appropriate but can add to a story, as well: comic relief. Mrs. Malaprop herself added this funny, if painful, dimension to the original story. Shakespeare has used similar characters in several of his plays. In my own satire of romance novels, The Pits of Passion, I have one very naïve character who constantly misspeaks, and the results can be quite comical. As with any tool, writers need to know the rules before they break them, but every tool has its exceptions.

So now let’s lay a reef on the grave of accidental malapropisms and make sure we’re using the correct words. Not sure you completely understand the meaning and spelling of a word? Look it up! No matter how many books we’ve written, we’re never too old to learn!

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

27 thoughts on “Malapropisms: Writing the Wrong Word”

  1. Great article. For me, malapropisms are usually caused by spell-check on auto-correct. Other times it’s plain-old writer error – like when a soldier earns a metal of honor, instead of a medal of honor.

  2. If I saw tenterhooks, I’d think it was an error. (Guess I’m not as smart as I thought I was.) 🙂

  3. The malapropism is rather a two-edged sword, if you use it on purpose, as Yogi Berra did. The stupid people will miss it completely. The people who think they’re smart will think you’re stupid. Only the really smart people will realize how smart you are!

      1. Or if it’s used in dialogue to indicate a character getting it wrong, which is sometimes fun and a way to define the way a character speaks. Odds are, though, a reader will just think YOU’RE wrong.

  4. These quirks of speech are more common that one realises. Listening to some live radio broadcasts from around the UK recently, where were local people discusted their everyday lives, I noticed that about one in five speakers used wrong words, completely naturably and with no intent to be funny. It was enough to make me go back and listen to the replay.

    1. And of course TV and radio journalists are trained to completely ignore a miffed word and just keep on talking, so many of them slip by without notice. Catching them definitely adds a new humorous dimension to the news!

  5. If you are relentlessly precise about your language as you write, you can position acyrologia and parapraxis in dialog to add color to a character and even to create a sense of a local dialect. If you make the same kind of “mistakes” yourself elsewhere in the text, however, the effect will be lost, and worse, the reader will think you just don’t know better. Even when your language is precise if you overdo such intentional usage, you risk the comedic effect Melissa wrote about.

    On a separate note, the verb “to flounder” is thought by some to have started out from “to founder”. Perhaps it is a distant acyrologia that became standard usage, the fish image too powerful to not win the usage battle?

  6. My family would tell you I’ve had the hank of it four a long time. I regularly get my worms mixed up when trying to explode complicating things. I find it creeps into my scripture because I rite as I would tell the story aloud. Then it takes a lot of time editing out the madopropisms and spelling mistooks. 🙂

  7. Could it be that ‘to flounder’ is supposed to indicate flapping about like a stranded flatfish whilst fishing for the right word, idea, or action?

  8. I don’t know how many times in the past that I have heard people say they had “ammonia” instead of “pneumonia”. Maybe if you sniffed ammonia you would get pneumonia? I noticed in a movie I have that someone says “renumeration” instead of “remuneration”. The subtitle had it right, but the actor didn’t.

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