What Is a Malapropism? Definition & 20 Examples

Ever found yourself chuckling over a conversational blunder where a word is mistakenly used in place of a similar-sounding one, creating a nonsensical, yet amusing, statement?

Welcome to the world of malapropism! Named after the fictional character Mrs. Malaprop, it highlights the delightful mishaps that language can present.

Whether it’s in literature, film or day-to-day conversation, malapropisms offer a comedic element, often revealing misunderstandings and confusion, while reminding us of the intricate nuances of language in a light-hearted way. Buckle up, as we dive into the quirky realm of malapropism!

Definition of Malapropism

Malapropism is a form of language error where a speaker mistakenly uses a word that is similar in sound but different in meaning to the word they intended to use. This phenomenon often results in unintentional humor, as the listener tries to make sense of the confusing or nonsensical statement.

Historical Origins

Malapropism has its roots in the world of theater, specifically in the 18th-century English play The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The term is derived from the character Mrs. Malaprop, whose name in turn originates from the French phrase mal à propos, meaning “inappropriate” or “poorly applied.”

Mrs. Malaprop, a prominent character in Sheridan’s play, was known for her frequent misuse of words, often causing great confusion and amusement for both the other characters and the audience. Sheridan created her to satirize the linguistic pretensions of the upper class during that time.

The character’s linguistic blunders quickly captured the attention of audiences and critics alike, and as a result, the term “malapropism” was coined to describe this specific type of language error.

Famous Examples in Literature

Shakespeare’s Dogberry

In William Shakespeare’s play, Much Ado About Nothing, we encounter the character Dogberry, a comical and bumbling constable who regularly misuses words, inadvertently creating humor. For instance, Dogberry claims to be “a fellow of the most headstrong humor” instead of “headstrong nature.”

Mrs. Malaprop

Richard Sheridan’s play, The Rivals, features the character Mrs. Malaprop, whose name inspired the term. She often confuses words, substituting them with similar-sounding, yet incorrect, terms.

A classic example is when Mrs. Malaprop refers to herself as the “pineapple of politeness” rather than the “pinnacle of politeness.”

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

In this classic French novel, the character Homais often slips into malapropisms that reveal his pretentiousness and limited education. One example is when he uses the term “melopoeia” in place of “melancholia.”

Mistress Quickly

Another Shakespearean character known for her malapropisms is Mistress Quickly from the plays Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor. As an overly chatty and well-intentioned character, Mistress Quickly creates comical confusion by frequently misusing words.

For instance, she mentions “adieu” when she intends to say “adornment” and employs “stupefied” in place of “stupified.”

SantaLand Diaries by David Sedaris

The character Crumpet the Elf says, “I believe it’s important to get an early start on the holidays, which is why, come December, I like to hang my victims from the mantel.” He meant ‘stockings’, not ‘victims’.

Malapropisms in Pop Culture


Malapropisms have appeared in several films, often for comedic purposes.

  • Back to the Future Part III: Dr. Emmett Brown repeatedly uses the word “jigowatts” instead of the correct term “gigawatts”.
  • Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery: Austin Powers says “Allow myself to introduce… myself.” instead of “Allow me to introduce myself.”
  • The Princess Bride: Vizzini repeatedly uses “Inconceivable!” in different contexts where the word doesn’t make sense.
  • Clueless: Cher Horowitz uses words inappropriately numerous times, including when she says she wants to do something “sporadically” when she actually means regularly.
  • Coming to America: There’s a scene where Prince Akeem is described as being “benevolent”, when the intended word was “malevolent”.


Television shows have utilized malapropisms to add humor and wit to their storylines.

  • Arrested Development: The character Tobias Fünke famously uses malapropisms like saying “I just blue myself” instead of “I just blew it.”
  • The Sopranos: Tony Soprano, in the American crime drama series, continually misuses or mispronounces words and phrases like “revenge is like serving cold cuts” instead of the correct saying “revenge is a dish best served cold.”
  • All in the Family: Archie Bunker, a character known for his malapropisms, once used “You know, it ain’t easy being a chauvinist” when he meant “It ain’t easy being a humanist.”
  • The Suite Life of Zack & Cody: The character London Tipton is famous for her malapropisms, for example when she states “it’s a ‘doggy dog’ world” instead of “dog eat dog world.”
  • Friends: Joey Tribiani was known for his humorous confusion of words, such as when he referred to “moo points” instead of “moot points.”

Malapropisms in Everyday Speech

Malapropisms can appear in everyday speech from various speakers. A malapropism occurs when a speaker mistakenly uses a word that is similar in sound to another word but has a completely different meaning, often resulting in unintentional humor.

Here are examples of malapropisms in everyday speech:

  • “We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile.” This should be “hold this nation hostage.”
  • “We had a real gastronomical adventure.” Instead of “astronomical adventure.”
  • “She’s the pineapple of my eye.” It should be “She’s the apple of my eye.”
  • “This situation is beyond my apprehension.” Instead of “This situation is beyond my comprehension.”
  • “It was a blessing in the skies.” Instead of “It was a blessing in disguise.”

Remember, while they can be quite funny, malapropisms usually happen by mistake and are a result of misunderstanding, not knowing, or confusing similar-sounding words.

Role in Comedy and Entertainment

Malapropism plays a significant role in comedy and entertainment by providing humor through the misuse of words.

Using Malapropism for Comedic Effect

Malapropism has long been a tool used in comedy to generate laughter, create humorous scenarios, and add character depth. It works on the premise of surprise, distorting expectation with a misused word that sounds similar yet poses an entirely different meaning. This abrupt shift often builds comedic tension, making it a popular device in comedic literature, theater, stand-up comedy, and film.

The effectiveness of malapropism depends on the audience recognizing the incorrect word use, thus giving them an opportunity to feel clever and amused at the same time. With it, comedians and writers can subtly reflect on societal norms, language misconceptions, and human follies, turning simple conversations into moments of humor.

Popularity in Television Shows, Movies, and Stand-up Comedy

Malapropisms contribute significantly to humor in visual media, such as movies and television shows, as well as in stand-up comedy. Through dialogue and character development, these linguistic missteps enable the creation of humor, often attributed to a character’s ignorance or charming quirks.

Sitcoms, in particular, frequently use malapropisms to make scripts more entertaining and keep the audience engaged through harmless, joyous laughter.

Stand-up comedy also leverages the power of malapropisms effectively, where the comedian, playing with language, surprises the audience with these humorous errors.

This adds a unique flavor to their performances and scripts, distinguishing them from other comedians. In both visual and performance mediums, malapropisms delight the audience, making it a consistently popular comedic device and an essential language tool in the entertainment industry.

Tool of Satire

In the realm of comedy and entertainment, satire is a powerful tool that uses humor, irony, and exaggeration to criticize or mock individuals, societal norms, or political scenarios. It brings laughter, but it also urges audiences to think and question.

Satire often exposes the absurdities, follies, or shortcomings in a person, a policy, or a belief, with the objective of bringing about a change or prompting thought and discussion.

The use of malapropisms in satire adds another layer to the humor. When characters misuse words trying to sound more sophisticated or educated, it highlights the gap between their perceived self-importance and their actual knowledge or capabilities.

This contrast forms the core of many satirical pieces, making the audience laugh while simultaneuously commenting on serious subjects. By presenting such inconsistencies through humor, satire manages to entertain and enlighten at the same time.

Similar Language Phenomena


Spoonerisms occur when the initial sounds or letters of two or more words are swapped, often unintentionally, resulting in a humorous or ironic outcome. They are named after Reverend William Archibald Spooner, who was famous for making these types of mistakes in his speech.

For example, saying “you have hissed all my mystery lectures” instead of “you have missed all my history lectures.” Spoonerisms can sometimes create nonsensical phrases, but they are more amusing than disruptive to communication.


Eggcorns are linguistic errors in which a word or phrase is mistakenly replaced by another that sounds similar but has a different meaning. They often arise from mishearing or misunderstanding the correct term. Unlike spoonerisms, eggcorns usually maintain the original meaning of the phrase.

Examples of eggcorns include saying “old-timers’ disease” instead of “Alzheimer’s disease” or “preying mantis” instead of “praying mantis.” Eggcorns reveal the ways in which language is flexible and adaptive, as speakers try to make sense of unfamiliar expressions.


Acyrologia is the unintentional use of an incorrect but similar-sounding word, often resulting in humorous or embarrassing situations. Unlike spoonerisms and eggcorns, acyrologia typically involves the substitution of a single word, creating confusion or ambiguity.

For example, using the word “anecdote” instead of “antidote” or “pacific” instead of “specific.” Acyrologia can make both written and spoken language difficult to understand, as the intended meaning becomes obscured by the inappropriate word choice.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a malapropism a standard or accepted use of language?

Malapropisms are not standard or accepted in formal communication. They are either unintentional mistakes or intentional linguistic tools used for comedic or satirical purposes. Frequent use of malapropisms might be perceived as an indicator of poor language skills.

Does the use of malapropisms represent lack of knowledge?

Not necessarily. While unintentional malapropisms can sometimes suggest a limited vocabulary or misunderstanding of word meanings, deliberate use of malapropism is a prowess in language command.

Many skilled authors, comedians, and speakers use malapropism as an effective literary device or comedic tool.

Is there a certain kind of person who is more likely to use malapropisms than others?

There isn’t a specific type of person more prone to using malapropisms than others. They can occur with anyone and at any age.

Generally, they are more likely to occur when a person is nervous, distracted, or under stress. However, malapropisms can be used intentionally by writers, comedians, and public speakers to induce humor or develop a character.


Malapropism serves as colorful threads woven into the tapestry of language, adding humor and spark to our conversations. This linguistic phenomenon not only brightens dialogues but underscores the vast, intricate, and sometimes confusing structure of English language.

It further reminds us that in verbal expression, gaffes can become art, mistakes can turn into a source of laughter, and effective communication can persist amidst the chaos.

Whether deliberate or accidental, malapropisms highlight the quirkiness of language, showing us that words, when tangled and misplaced, can indeed offer unexpected joy.

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Kyna is a writer and aspiring doctor. Besides writing, she likes discovering new music, immersing herself in interactive books, and engaging in multiplayer shooter games. She is passionate about chemistry, human biology, and pharmacology, and is always eager to learn more about these subjects.