Word Confusions (Malapropisms)

Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816).
Richard Brinsley Sheridan

We have Richard Brinsley Sheridan to thank for the term “malapropism.” Mrs. Malaprop is a comic character in his play, The Rivals, which was first performed in London on January 17, 1775. (It was said to have been George Washington’s favorite play.)

Mrs. Malaprop’s name literally means “inappropriate.” In the play she comically confuses words that sound similar, but have much different meanings. She famously said that a man was “the very pineapple of politeness,” meaning, of course, “pinnacle.”

mrs malaprop
Mrs. Malaprop

She also referred to “contagious countries” when she meant nations that border on each other: contiguous. In Act III she comments that a certain person is “as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” Clearly, she meant to say “alligator.”

I have a good friend from college who, for his entire life, has never “cast aspersions” on anything. He always says, “cast asparagus” instead. Curly of the Three Stooges always used to say, “I resemble that remark,” meaning, of course, that he resented it.

Tony Abbott, when Prime Minister of Australia, wanted to say that no one knows everything. Instead, he said that no one “is the suppository of all wisdom”; and that could be true, perhaps. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley once referred to a meeting of “Alcoholics Unanimous.”

Word confusions are funny, especially when the speaker says them knowingly and with a wink. They can be irritating as well. For example, there is a big difference between a “false pretense” and a “pretext” (which, by definition, is always false); yet, these two words are used incorrectly as often, perhaps, as they are put to the right use.

Add your favorite malapropisms in the comments.

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Born in Pittsburgh, educated at Yale. Practiced law in Washington DC. Moved to Colorado. Lived in Mexico. Translator and internet content writer.

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