What Is a Malapropism? Definition and Examples

These funny (and common) errors lead to muddled meanings and plenty of laughs

Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker in the American sitcom All in the Family (1971-1979). Archie's frequent malapropisms (such as groin-acologist for gynecologist) are sometimes called Bunkerisms. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

The term malapropism refers to the incorrect use of a word in place of a similar-sounding word, typically with a humorous result. Malapropisms are usually unintentional, but they can also be used intentionally to create a comic effect. Whether accidental or deliberate, malapropisms often turn serious statements into funny ones. 

Malapropisms are sometimes called acyrologia or phonological word substitutions.

History of the Term

The word malapropism is derived from the French word “malapropos,” meaning "being improper or inappropriate." However, malapropism did not enter common parlance as a grammatical term until the publication of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals.

The Rivals featured a comedic character named Mrs. Malaprop, who frequently confused words that sound alike but have wildly different meanings. Some of her mistakes included substituting the word "contagious" for "contiguous" “contagious countries” and "geometry" for "geography." These slip-ups earned her big laughs from audiences and resulted in the creation of the term malapropism.

William Shakespeare was known for using malapropisms in his work. He called the verbal mistakes Dogberryisms, named after a character from Much Ado About Nothing. Just like Mrs. Malaprop, Dogberry frequently conflated similar-sounding words, much to the audience's amusement. 

Common Malapropisms

In everyday life, malapropisms are frequently used unintentionally. Malapropisms can muddle the meaning of a sentence, and they often generate a laugh at the speaker's expense. Remember that just because two words look or sound alike, they do not necessarily have similar meanings. Here are some of the most common malapropisms. 

  • Jive vs. Jibe: The term “jive” refers a dance style, while “jibe” refers to two or more entities complementing each other. Peanut butter and jelly do not “jive,” but the two tasty spreads certainly do “jibe" when combined in a sandwich. 
  • Statue vs. Stature: A “statue” is a sculpture of a person, place, or thing. The term "stature” refers to an individual's height or reputation. You can describe a person as having an impressive stature, not an impressive statue — unless they've just had their likeness memorialized in bronze.
  • Erratic vs. Erotic: The word "erratic" describes something that is unpredictable and irregular. Don't confuse it with the word "erotic," which refers to something that is suggestive of sexual desire. Calling someone's behavior "erratic" has a very different implication than calling someone's behavior "erotic." 
  • Installation vs. Insulation: When you order a new refrigerator, chances are you’ll have to pay for installation: the process of physical set-up. But if you take your coffee to go, you’ll want to keep it in a thermos with insulation, which is a special material that retains heat. You wouldn’t say, “My thermos has lots of installation,” but you might say, “It has proper insulation.”
  • Monotonous vs. Monogamous: A monotonous job is a boring one. A monogamous relationship is one that involves two people only. Telling your spouse you don’t want a “monogamous lifestyle” when you actually meant “monotonous lifestyle” can land you in some serious trouble.

Malapropisms in Popular Culture

Celebrities and other public figures have used plenty of malapropisms over the years. Their verbal slip-ups generate lots of laughs and often enter the permanent pop culture record. Here are some of the funniest malapropisms in recent memory.

  • “Texas has a lot of electrical votes.” New York Yankee Yogi Berra meant to discuss “electoral” votes. Electrical votes do not exist, unless you’re voting on the best electrician.
  • “We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile.” It's true that terrorists may be “hostile” (or unfriendly) to our nation, but President George W. Bush meant to use the word hostage: "hold this nation hostage or hold our allies hostage." (the act of detailing a prisoner).
  • “Alcoholics Unanimous.” Chicago’s former mayor Richard J. Daley swapped the word “anonymous” (unknown or nameless) with “unanimous” (consistent or united). The resulting malapropism suggests an organization that unites individuals with alcoholism.
  • “Listen to the blabbing brook.” Comedian Norm Crosby is known as “The Master of Malaprop." In this line, he calls a brook "blabbing" (as though it won't stop talking) when he really means "babbling" (which refers to the soft sound of water flowing).
  • “Why, murder's the matter! Slaughter's the matter! Killing's the matter! But he can tell you the perpendiculars.” Here, The Rivals' infamous Mrs. Malaprop uses the word “perpendiculars” (which refers to two lines at a 90 degree angle) when she should have used “particulars” (which refers to the specific details of a situation).
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Chesanek, Carissa. "What Is a Malapropism? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-malapropism-1691368. Chesanek, Carissa. (2023, April 5). What Is a Malapropism? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-malapropism-1691368 Chesanek, Carissa. "What Is a Malapropism? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-malapropism-1691368 (accessed May 30, 2023).