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A malapropism occurs when a writer, character, or other source uses a word incorrectly, usually rendering the sentence nonsensical.

This is usually done between the word and that which it replaced sound similar. When this happens, the sentence is rendered nonsensical.


History of Malapropism

The word “malapropism” has an interesting origin. It comes from a character from a 1775 play titled The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Mrs. Malaprop was a funny and outrageous character who was known for using words incorrectly in her sentences. The word “malaprop” comes from the French “mal à propos” meaning “poorly placed”. In 1814 Lord Byron used the definition, taking the word from The Rivals. 

Malapropism is also sometimes known as “Dogberryism”. this word comes from another dramatic source, Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing and the character Dogberry.


Use of Malapropisms

Most often, malapropisms, also known as an acyrologia or Dogberryism, are found in dramatic sources such as the two mentioned above. When they appear in plays and poems it is often because the writer has made a mistake that no one caught before the work was published. These examples are much rarer.

In plays, malapropisms are used to show a character in a particular light. The writer is able to convey something about the character’s education level, their understanding of a specific topic, or even develop their personality in a specific way through how they use language. They are usually used in humorous settings and in the dialogue of characters who are meant to make the audience laugh or at the very least lighten the mood. Malapropism can often appear in speeches as someone fumbles their words or proceeds with a misunderstanding of what a word means.


Common Examples of Malapropisms

  • “I am on tender hooks” rather than “tenterhooks”. This is a good example in that the word “tenter” is generally unsued today, making it hard to remember and hard to understand. It refers to a frame on which cloth is stretched out. The cloth is being held in suspense, just as the phrase suggests the speaker is.
  • “hunger pains” rather than “hunger pains”.
  • “For all intensive purposes” rather than “intents and purposes”.
  • “escape goat” rather than “scapegoat”.
  • “doggy dog world” rather than “dog-eat-dog world”.


Examples of Malapropism in Literature

Example #1 The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

It is from The Rivals that the term malapropism was derived. Specifically, as stated above, from a character named Mrs. Malaprop. It is for her misuse of words and phrases that this character is best-known. A few are listed below:

  • “The pineapple of politeness”
  • “She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile
  • “Sure, if I reprehend anything in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!”


Example #2 Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare 

Second, only to Mrs. Malaprop, the character of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing is well-remembered for his use of malapropisms. There are numerous amusing examples of this technique playing out in the play. For example, from Act III, Scene 3:

Our watch, my lord, have indeed comprehended two aspicious persons, and we would have them this morning examined before your worship

Rather than saying “apprehended” Dogberry uses the word “comprehended” transforming the sentence entirely. Rather than “apprehending” the criminals, he is stating that he understands them. Another good example is from Act IV, Scene 2:

O villain! thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this.

Here, Shakespeare’s constable says “redemption” rather than “Damnation”. He really couldn’t have transformed the meaning of the sentence more completely with the exchange of these two words.

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