Understanding Malapropism: Definition & Examples
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 6 min read


  1. What is malapropism?
  2. How does malapropism occur?
  3. Examples of malapropism in literature
  4. Examples of malapropism in everyday speech
  5. How to identify malapropism

Imagine you're listening to a conversation and suddenly, you hear someone say, "I can't stand this intolerable heat, I need an air confitioner." You stifle a giggle, realizing that the person meant to say 'air conditioner'. This is a classic example of a language phenomenon known as malapropism. This blog will guide you through the definition of malapropism, how it occurs, and where you can find examples in literature and everyday speech. So, let's dive into the fascinating world of malapropisms.

What is malapropism?

Malapropism is a linguistic error that seems to sneak its way into our everyday conversations and even literature, often leading to humorous, and sometimes confusing, outcomes. But what exactly is it, and why does it happen?


The definition of malapropism is simple: it's when a word is mistakenly used in place of a similar-sounding one. The result is often amusing, as the wrong word can completely change the meaning of a sentence. For instance, saying "I need to buy a new suppression cooker" instead of "pressure cooker." The misused word, "suppression," sounds like the correct word, "pressure," but it has a completely different meaning.

Why is it called 'malapropism'?

Now, you might wonder why such a funny language mistake has such a complex name - 'malapropism.' The term actually comes from a character named Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 play, "The Rivals." Mrs. Malaprop often mixed up words, leading to the term 'malapropism.' The word is derived from the French phrase 'mal à propos' which translates to 'inappropriate.'

Why does malapropism matter?

So, why should you care about malapropism? Well, it's more than just a funny mistake. Understanding malapropism helps you better comprehend and appreciate language. It shows how language can be flexible and creative, even when mistakes are made. Plus, knowing the definition of malapropism can make you the star of your next trivia night!

How does malapropism occur?

Now that we've covered the definition of malapropism, let's delve into why these funny little mix-ups happen in the first place. Is it carelessness, a lack of knowledge, or something else entirely?

The Role of Phonetics

One of the main reasons for malapropism is phonetic similarity. When two words sound alike, it's easy to mix them up. For example, 'compliment' and 'complement' sound close enough that they're often interchanged by mistake. So, if you've ever thanked someone for a 'complement', you've committed a malapropism!

Lack of Word Knowledge

Another common cause of malapropism is a simple lack of word knowledge. Sometimes, we think we know what a word means and how to use it, but we're actually off the mark. If you've ever talked about the 'Pacific' Ocean when you meant 'specific', you've been caught in the act of malapropism.

Slips of the Tongue

Ever been in a hurry and said something you didn't mean? We all have. These slips of the tongue can also lead to malapropism. For instance, you might want to say "I can't bear the heat" but accidentally say "beer" instead of "bear". Just a simple slip, but it's still a malapropism.

Memory and Context Confusion

Lastly, our memory and the context in which we learn words can contribute to malapropisms. If you learned the word 'monotonous' in a situation that was actually 'monogamous', you might mix them up in the future. It's a small mistake, but it can lead to big laughs - or confusion!

So, there you have it - malapropism in a nutshell. It's a mix of phonetics, word knowledge, slips of the tongue, and memory playing tricks on us. Who knew language could be such a fun playground?

Examples of malapropism in literature

Having explored the definition of malapropism and how it occurs, let's now turn our attention to its presence in literature. You may be surprised to find out how many well-known authors have used this linguistic phenomenon to add humor and character to their writing.

Shakespeare's Classic Malapropism

Shakespeare, the master of wordplay, gave us one of the best-known examples of malapropism in his play "Much Ado About Nothing". The character Dogberry famously declares, "Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons". Of course, Dogberry meant to say "suspicious", not "auspicious", giving us a classic malapropism that adds a touch of humor to the scene.

Jane Austen's Elegant Errors

Even the refined world of Jane Austen isn't immune to malapropisms. In "Northanger Abbey", the character Mrs. Malaprop—whose name is a nod to the term itself—often uses the wrong words. When she speaks of "the 'derangement' of the mind", she really means 'arrangement', creating a humorous contrast to the sophisticated setting of the novel.

Mark Twain's Humorous Mix-ups

Mark Twain, known for his humor and wit, also used malapropism in his writing. In "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", Huck says, "We had to keep still and let our candles burn right out for fear we might 'calculate' the place". In this instance, Huck meant 'calculate' to mean 'reveal', giving readers yet another reason to chuckle at his adventures.

As these examples show, malapropisms can serve as a powerful tool for writers, adding humor and depth to their characters while simultaneously delighting readers.

Examples of malapropism in everyday speech

After exploring the definition of malapropism and its use in literature, you might wonder: do people actually make these mistakes in real life? The answer is a resounding yes! Below, we'll explore a few common examples of malapropism that often crop up in everyday speech.

The Classic "For all intensive purposes"

Ever heard someone say, "For all intensive purposes," when they really meant, "For all intents and purposes"? That's a malapropism! This common mix-up is a great example of how people often mishear phrases and repeat them incorrectly, leading to humorous results.

The Infamous "I could care less"

This is a tricky one. When people say, "I could care less," they usually mean they don't care at all. However, the correct phrase is, "I couldn't care less," meaning it's not possible for them to care any less than they do. This malapropism is so common, it's almost completely replaced the original phrase in everyday speech!

The Confusing "Nip it in the butt"

If you've ever heard someone say they're going to "nip it in the butt," you've stumbled upon yet another malapropism. The correct phrase is "nip it in the bud," a gardening metaphor for stopping a problem while it's still small. This example demonstrates how malapropisms can lead to some pretty funny mental images.

These examples just go to show that even in our daily conversations, malapropisms are more common than you might think. And while they can lead to some misunderstandings, they often add an unexpected dose of humor to our lives.

How to identify malapropism

Now that we've explored the definition of malapropism and seen it in action, let's delve into the nitty-gritty: How can you identify a malapropism when you come across one? Here are a few simple steps to help you become a malapropism-spotting pro.

Listen for the Unexpected

One of the easiest ways to spot a malapropism is to listen for something unexpected or out of place in a conversation. Did someone just say they're going to "nip it in the butt" instead of "bud"? That's a malapropism right there! Remember, malapropisms often result in humorous or nonsensical statements, so keep an ear out for anything that makes you chuckle or scratch your head.

Know Your Idioms and Phrases

Having a good grasp of common idioms and phrases can help you identify when one has been misused. For example, if you know the phrase is "for all intents and purposes," you'll immediately spot the malapropism when someone says "for all intensive purposes".

Check the Context

Context is key when identifying a malapropism. If a word seems entirely out of place in its sentence, it's possible that it's being used incorrectly. Remember, malapropisms are words that are similar in sound to the word that was intended, but have a completely different meaning.

So now, equipped with the definition of malapropism and these handy identification tips, you're all set to spot these humorous mix-ups in your everyday life. Happy malapropism hunting!

If you're eager to dive deeper into the fascinating world of wordplay, check out the workshop 'Wordplay' by Celina Rodriguez. This workshop will not only provide you with a better understanding of malapropism, but it will also introduce you to other forms of wordplay and help you incorporate them into your writing for added creativity and style.