Regina Patrick is a freelance medical writer and editor. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Linguistics.
1. “I don't know, man, I might just fade into Bolivian.”
Boxer Mike Tyson’s response—after losing a 2002 boxing match to Lennox Lewis—to an interviewer who asked, “Where do you go from here, Mike?”
2. “Mark my words, we will make breakfast a success!”
Andrew R. T. Davies (Welsh Conservative Party politician) comment during an October 2016 speech to Parliament.
3. "I brought in some burritos or colored greens or pad Thai; I love pad Thai."
Spoken by the fictional character Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell) on the TV show The Office (“Diversity Day” episode).
4. "Texas has a lot of electrical votes."
A statement attributed to baseball player, manager, and coach Yogi Berra in supporting George W. Bush’s campaign for US President (after George W. Bush had stated that Texas was important to the election).
Each sentence contains a malapropism (pronounced “MAL-uh-PROP-izm”), which is the use of a wrong word for a similar-sounding correct word. What the speakers meant to say was
1. “I don't know, man, I might just fade into oblivion.”
2. “Mark my words, we will make Brexit a success!”
3. "I brought in some burritos or collard greens or pad Thai; I love pad Thai."
4. "Texas has a lot of electoral votes."
The term “malapropism” is based on the name of a character—Mrs. Malaprop—in the comedic play, “The Rivals,” written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan in 1775. Mrs. Malaprop is a woman who gets mixed up in the schemes and dreams of young lovers, as well as getting mixed up in her use of the English language. Her name is derived from the French: mal à propos, meaning “inappropriate.”
Examples of Mrs. Malaprop’s malapropisms from The Rivals:
“Promise to forget this fellow—to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory.” [the correct word is “obliterate,” to destroy or remove fully; “illiterate” is the inability to read]
"Oh! it gives me the hydrostatics to such a degree." [the correct word is “hysterics,” an exaggerated emotional reaction; “hydrostatics” is a branch of science concerned with the equilibrium of liquids and the pressure exerted by liquid at rest]
"I am sorry to say, Sir Anthony, that my affluence over my niece is very small." [the correct word is “influence,” the ability to affect another’s belief or actions; “affluence” is wealth]
"I am sure I have done everything in my power since I exploded the affair." [the correct word is “exposed,” to reveal something; “exploded” is to burst or shatter violently]
In movies, television shows (as in example 3), theater, malapropisms are often used for a comedic effect to convey that a speaker is too flustered to speak properly or are used to convey that a speaker is uneducated or that an uneducated speaker is attempting to present himself or herself as educated and speaking “proper” English. Even when malapropisms are unintentionally spoken (as in examples 1, 2, and 4), listeners can be amused by them and the speaker ridiculed. In addition to (unintentionally) inducing mirth in readers or listeners, malapropisms may cause others to not take a speaker or writer seriously and consequently perceive the speaker or writer as “inept,” “bumbling,” “uneducated,” or “lazy” (i.e., to lazy to learn proper English).
In speeches and in written content, malapropisms should be avoided (unless you intend a comedic effect). Below are some malapropisms in phrases commonly used in casual spoken and written English. How many of these malapropisms are you guilty of in your speaking or writing?
- “Could care less” [the correct phrase is “couldn’t care less”]
The intent of the phrase is to indicate that the individual absolutely does not care about something; however, to say “could care less” logically means the person still has some remaining care about something.
- “For all intensive purposes” [the correct phrase is “for all intents and purposes”]
When spoken quickly, “intents and” almost sounds like “intensive,” which means “involving a lot of care.”
- “Would/should/could of” [the correct phrase is would’ve/should’ve/could’ve or would/should/could have]
The contraction for “have” (i.e., “-‘ve”) sounds similar to “of.” However, “have” and “of” have different meanings. “Have” means “to possess,” whereas “of” indicates “connected with,” “belonging to,” or “related to.”
- “To be on tenderhooks” [the correct phrase is “to be on tenterhooks”]
The phrase indicates a person is tense with worried anticipation. A “tenter” is a frame on which cloth is stretched tightly (i.e., much tension is exerted on the cloth). “Tender” has to do with gentleness or easily damaged.
- “To nip something in the butt” [the correct phrase is “to nip something in the bud”]
To nip something in the bud is a reference to pruning—cutting out an emerging bud (not butt [i.e., buttocks]) from a plant to accomplish a desired effect (e.g., larger flowers, larger fruit, or a certain shape (e.g., topiary [the art of shaping bushes into animal, geometric, or other forms]).
- “A doggy-dog world” [the correct phrase is “dog-eat-dog world”]
When spoken quickly, “dog-eat” sounds like “doggy.”
- “Old timers’ disease” [the correct phrase is “Alzheimer’s Disease”]
The dementia associated with Alzheimer’s disease (named for German physician Alois Alzheimer) was initially associated with older people (i.e., “old-timers”). In addition, “Alzheimer’s” when spoken quickly can sound like “old timers” to English speakers.
- “To pass mustard” [the correct phrase is “to pass muster”]
Mustard is a condiment and muster is to bring troops together in preparation for battle. In a muster, troops undergo a review. A troop that passes muster has successfully passed the review. Thus, to pass muster means that something or someone has passed an inspection of some sort.
- “An escape goat” [the correct phrase is “a scapegoat”]
In the Bible (Old Testament), the sins of the Jewish people were ceremonially placed on one goat and the goat was led to the wilderness, thereby taking away the sins of the people. Thus, a scapegoat is a person blamed for others’ wrongdoings. In 1530, medieval translator William Tyndale introduced the term “escape goat” when he translated the Bible into English. “Escape goat” was later shortened to “scapegoat.” Therefore, the modern form of “escape goat” is “scapegoat.”
- “A mute point” [the correct phrase is “moot point”]
“Mute” is the inability to speak. “Moot” means “open to debate” or “undecided.”
These similar-sounding words are commonly confused and can therefore result in a malapropism. Be careful when using them.
- affect (to influence) | effect (a result)
- allusion (to hint at something) | illusion (something that appears to be what it is not)
- jibe (to talk in a foolish or deceptive manner) | jive (to be in accord or agree with something)
- precede (to come before) | proceed (to continue an action)
- accept (to agree to or receive something) | except (to not include something)
- complement (something that completes or enhances another thing) | compliment (an expression of praise)
- conscience (one’s inner moral guide) | conscious (awareness or being awake)
- prostrate (to lie prone [i.e., face down] on the ground) | prostate (a gland in males that produces semen)
- feel (to perceive through the sense of touch) | fill (to make or become full)
- then (used to convey “at that time,” “therefore,” or “afterwards” [e.g., “She came here, and then went to school.”]) | than (used to indicate a comparison or a contrast [e.g., “She would rather babysit than do her homework.”])
How many of these malapropisms are you guilty of using?
The Regina Patrick Writing Service helps writers avoid malapropisms and other “-isms” (e.g., spoonerisms and eggcornisms, which I will discuss in future articles) that can unintentionally turn your content into comedic material and reduce the impact of your intended message. To avoid such errors in your journal article, blog post, thesis/dissertation, or other content, contact Regina Patrick Writing Service by e-mail or through the website order form.
- By e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
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- Website: http://patrickwritingservice.com
Interesting note: In the comedic play Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare (written in 1598 or 1599), the speech of the character Constable Dogberry is full of many malapropisms such as “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons" (he meant “… apprehended two suspicious persons”). Thus, malapropisms were initially called dogberryisms. A fancy term for malapropism is acyrologia (from the Greek, meaning “inexact word”).
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rpatrick (author) on February 02, 2021:
Thank you, Jodah!
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on February 01, 2021:
The quotes were quite funny. An interesting article overall.