The interesting origins of a useful word
The word ‘malapropism’ is among the wordiest of words, denoting a misused word. Specifically, a malapropism is an erroneous word used in place of another, correct word, e.g. ‘at this pacific moment’ (rather than specific moment) or referring to a place of scientific experiment as a ‘lavatory’ rather than laboratory. So much for the technical meaning of the word ‘malapropism’ itself, but what is the origin of the term?
Well, in the first instance it derives from Mrs Malaprop, a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals. In Sheridan’s comedy, Mrs Malaprop frequently uses the wrong word for the thing she means, as in the famous line: ‘Sure, if I reprehend [apprehend] any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular [vernacular] tongue, and a nice derangement [arrangement] of epitaphs [epithets]!’ Or at least, that’s probably what she means.
Curiously, the adverb ‘malapropos’ is found in print from 1630 with the sense of ‘in an inopportune, inappropriate, or awkward manner’; it then became an adjective around the beginning of the following century. Mrs Malaprop’s name, and the phenomenon to which her name was lent, are an extension of this existing Latin-derived word, which roughly means ‘inappropriate’ or ‘bad purpose’. Similarly, the phenomenon of the malapropism was not Sheridan’s invention, even if the precise word may have been. Indeed, one might also describe malapropisms as Dogberryisms, after Dogberry, the chief of police in Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. Among Dogberry’s many malapropisms (or Dogberryisms) is the following: ‘Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended [apprehended] two auspicious [suspicious] persons, and we would have them this morning examined before your worship.
Malapropisms are very much an everyday phrenology (phenomenon), rather than being refined (confined) to the works of friction (fiction). (See what we did there?) In 2005 the New Scientist reported an example of someone using a malapropism in place of the very word ‘malapropism’. A worker described a colleague as ‘a vast suppository of information’ (meaning repository, of course). When his error was pointed out to him, he duly apologised for his ‘Miss-Marple-ism’.
So, although the word ‘malapropism’ is the usual go-to word to describe somebody mixing up one word for another, we shouldn’t forget the similarly literary ‘Dogberryism’. The origin of ‘malapropism’ takes us back to a famous play that was the sensation of its age, but another play – that by Shakespeare – has also given us an alternative term for the phenomenon. And perhaps we should take up the well-meaning ‘Miss-Marple-ism’ as the word to denote somebody’s malapropistic attempt to correct a previous malapropism by uttering … another malapropism? Call it a form of Muphry’s Law, if you will.
Image: Mrs Malaprop and Captain Jack Absolute in a production of The Rivals, via The Huntingdon Theatre Company on Flickr.