Mrs. Malaprop and the Origin of Malapropisms

Mrs. Malaprop's Name Became Famous

Actress Louisa Drew in costume as Mrs. Malaprop. Getty Images Bettmann / Contributor

The character Mrs. Malaprop is a humorous aunt who gets mixed up in the schemes and dreams of young lovers in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 comedy-of-manners The Rivals.

One of the funniest aspects of Mrs. Malaprop's character is that she often uses an incorrect word to express herself. The popularity of the play and of the character led to the creation of the literary term malapropism, meaning the the practice (whether by intent or by accident) of using an incorrect word that sounds similar to the appropriate word.

Mrs. Malaprop's name comes from the French term malapropos, meaning “inappropriate”

Here are a few examples of Mrs. Malaprop's wit and wisdom:

"We will not anticipate the past, our retrospection will now be all to the future."

"The pineapple of politeness" (Instead of "pinnacle of politeness.")

"She's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile" (Instead of "alligator on the banks of the Nile.")

Malapropism in Literature and Theater

Sheridan was by no means the first or last to use malapropism in his work.  Shakespeare, for example, invented several characters whose traits are similar to those of Mrs. Malaprop. A few examples include:

  • Mistress Quickly, a lower-class inn keeper who appears in multiple plays (Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, and The Merry Wives of Windsor). A friend of Falstaff's, she says he is "indicted to dinner" rather than "invited to dinner."
  • Constable Dogberry, a character in Much Ado About Nothing, who "comprehended auspicious persons" rather than "apprehending suspicious persons." Dogberry's malapropisms became so famous that the term "Dogberryism" was coined -- a term that is essentially synonymous with malapropism.

    Many other writers have created Malaprop-type characters or characterizations. For example, Charles Dickens created Oliver Twist's Mr. Bumble, who said of the orphans he routinely starved and beat: "We name our fondlings in alphabetical order." Comedian Stan Laurel, in Sons of the Desert, refers to a "nervous shakedown," and calls the exalted ruler the "exhausted ruler."

    TV's Archie Bunker of the sitcom All in the Family was characterized by his constant malapropisms. Just a few of his best-known malapropisms including:

    • A house of "ill refute" (rather than ill repute)
    • An "ivory shower" (rather than an ivory tower)
    • A "pig's eye" (rather than a pig sty)
    • "Nectarines of the gods" (rather than nectar of the gods)

    The Purpose of Malapropism

    Of course, malapropism is an easy way to get a laugh -- and, across the board, characters who use malapropisms are comic characters. Malapropism, however, has a subtler purpose. Characters who mispronounce or mis-use common words and phrases are, by definition, either unintelligent or uneducated or both. A malapropism in the mouth of a supposedly intelligent or capable character instantly lowers their credibility.

    One example of this  technique is in the movie Head of State. In the movie the sleazy Vice President mispronounces the word "facade" (fah-sahd), saying "fakade" instead. This signals to the audience that he, himself, is not the educated and intelligent man he appears to be.