Malapropism Examples In Literature

Definition of Malapropism

Malapropism is a literary technique, through which a character uses a word mistakenly, that has similar sound but with different meaning. It appears in the form of comedy or absurd statements.

The term “Malapropism” comes from Mrs. Malaprop – fictional female character in the play “The Rivals” written by Richard Brinsley Sheridan in 1775, famous for her slips of the tongue. An example of this is instead of saying “He is the pineapple of politeness” a person will say “He is the pinnacle of politeness.”

Function of Malapropism

Malapropism serves several functions in literature:

Humor: The overall purpose of malapropism is to cause humor. Silly mistakes in words lead to funny confusions and provide readers with a funny speech or statement.

Characterization: It is possible to find some defective peculiarities of speech to characterize persons, often it concerns the fact that the given character is not very educated or he/she likes to behave in a rather affected manner. It points to their social or intellectual disability.

Satire and Critique: Malapropism is employed to ridicule certain persons or the whole class of people. In this context, it is possible to state that through the exaggeration and misuse of language, authors can produce a negative evaluation of certain trends in the society, such as arrogance, affected demeanor, or sheer stupidity of certain sections of the population.

Engagement: Considering the fact that Malapropisms are rather unexpected, their use can be regarded as helpful in paying the reader’s attention to the text and making it more effective.

Examples of Malapropism in Literature


“The Rivals” by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

“Mrs. Malaprop: “If I reprehend anything in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!”

Mrs. Malaprop actually embodies the wording slippage pattern that bears her name. Her statement is filled with gaffes, where she gets her words wrong but chooses ones that are phonetically similar to the correct words.

She uses “reprehend” instead of “apprehend”, “oracular” instead of “vernacular”, “derangement” instead of “arrangement” and “epitaphs” instead of “epithets.”

The use of the wrong words on the right occasion adds the element of comedy into the play. Although Mrs. Malaprop tries her best to speak formally, she actually has little understanding.

Sheridan employs this device not only for creating tickling laughter but also to give social satire, using Mrs. Malapropisms to describe the folly of some social classes’ conceit.


“Much Ado About Nothing” by William Shakespeare

Dogberry: “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons.”

The character Dogberry uses malapropisms for comic purposes. Dogberry, a constable famous for word slips, intends to report that his watchmen have apprehended two suspicious persons.

However the use of his word creates a comic effect, when he says “comprehended” instead of “apprehended”. It indicates that the watch has understood, instead of detaining the individuals in question.

Additionally, he describes the persons as “auspicious” (meaning favorable or promising) when he means to say “suspicious. ”

These malapropisms serve multiple purposes in the play: they describe Dogberry as an official belonging to the low class, as being inadequate in education and knowledge, as comical figures and as focusing on the aspect of confusion in the play.

Shakespeare employs this device primarily for the purpose of entertaining the audience, but at the same time, he addresses the problems of misunderstanding which can occur due to language.


“Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens

Mrs. Joe: “Hulks are prison-ships, right ‘cross th’ meshes… I wonder who’s put into prison-ships, and why they’re put there?”
Joe: “People are put in prison-ships, dear, because they murder, and because they rob, and forge, and do all sorts of bad.”
Mrs. Joe: “I tell you what, I’d give them all short commons, if I were the Government.”

Mrs. Joe uses the word ‘meshes’ when she should have said ‘marshes;’ this refers to the grounds that are marshy nearby their home.

This is but a grammar mistake; nonetheless this shows her illiteracy which gives flavor to her character’s dialogue.

It is significant to apply this particular vocabulary error to understand Mrs. Joe’s social status and education compared to the rest of the characters of the novel.

An author utilizes such ludic expressions as phonic analogies with the purpose of elaborating credible and noticeable characters, as well as focusing on the description of social inequalities.


“Finnegans Wake” by James Joyce

“Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war:”

The use of malapropisms is not the straightforward. For example the use of “Violer d’amores”, means viola d’amore, an instrument used in music and at the same time, it also means a violator of loves. ‘’Passencore’’is a portmanteau of ‘’pas encore’’ (meaning ‘’not yet’’ in French) and ‘’passenger’’, that links travel and timing.

In “penisolate,” the prefix “penin­sula” has been combined with “isolate”; the result is a clearly invented word somewhere between a geopolitical term refer­ring to geographic isolation and an attempt to name a feeling of isolation.

These are not mere swapping of similar sounding words but complex one that result from similar sounding words as well as incorporation of other languages with different meanings.

While Joyce’s play on words, which includes the quoted malapropisms, has a strong element of humor, it also forces the reader to decode and find multiple layers of meanings in the text.


“The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde

Miss Prism: “Memory, my dear Cecily, is the diary that we all carry about with us.”
Cecily: “Yes, but it usually chronicles the things that have never happened, and couldn’t possibly have happened.”

Cecily delivers the classic pseudo-pun by using chronicles instead of record or contain , thus giving the impression that memory writes fiction. This sort of careless slip-up enhances the play’s theme of miscommunication and mistaken personalities.


“A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole

“I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”

This quote belongs to the main character of the novel called Ignatius J Reilly. It is not a classic malapropism, however, it is a humorous use of language that serves a similar purpose.

Ignatius switches between the pompous English related to a grand prose (writing a lengthy indictment against our century) with plain and, in contrast, provincial English (I make an occasional cheese dip).

The comedy here, as we have seen, is derived from the tension between Ignatius’ pretensions of high learning and the trivial things he is actually involved in.

This sort of language abuse, thereby, infuses the personality of Ignatius all through the novel as pompous, paranoid and systematically calcified out of touch with reality. It is a subtype of this phenomenon that does not involve the use of sound-alikes and based on improper choice of the register.

See also: Examples of Memoir in Literature


“Catch-22” by Joseph Heller

“You have deep-seated survival anxieties. And you don’t like bigots, bullies, snobs or hypocrites. Subconsciously there are many people you hate.”
“Consciously, sir, consciously,” Yossarian corrected in an effort to help. “I hate them consciously.”
“You’re antagonistic to the idea of being robbed, exploited, degraded, humiliated or deceived. Misery depresses you. Ignorance depresses you. Persecution depresses you. Violence depresses you. Slums depress you. Greed depresses you. Crime depresses you. Corruption depresses you. You know, it wouldn’t surprise me if you’re a manic-depressive!”
“Yes, sir. Perhaps I am.”
“Don’t try to deny it.”
“I’m not denying it, sir,” said Yossarian, pleased with the miraculous rapport that finally existed between them. “I agree with all you’ve said.”

In the passage the particular slip of the tongue or an approximation is produced when the character, possibly being a psychiatrist or an officer, gets the term ‘manic-depressive’ wrong, which people today would refer to bipolar disorder.

It is probable that the psychiatrist provides a long list of very logical and quite plausible things that seriously depress Yossarian, only to claim that this makes the patient manic-depressive.

This malapropism serves multiple purposes: This powerfully conveys the farce of the military’s administration as of its vision of the mental health of its members.

Further, it creates humor through the misuse of psychological terminology and emphasizes one of the novel’s main themes: it also deals with the concept of war and the structures that are pro-war.

It is further elaborated by Yossarian’s proactive consent, demonstrating the role of language as a tool that hinders rather than facilitates healthy communication in the novel.

Actually, Heller’s pun here is more sophisticated than the standard linguistic mistake since it deals with the misappropriation of a concept. This shows that there is a divergence of what many would consider as malapropism and that the concept can be broader and encompassing in its application to humor and satire.

Malapropism Examples In Literature
Malapropism Examples In Literature

Literary Devices Related to Malapropism

1. Spoonerism

A spoonerism is a form of joke where two or more words in a phrase or sentence are given in reverse of their initial sounds.

This very often leads to a so called witty saying or a pun in other words. For instance, instead of saying “You have missed all my history lectures,’’ the recipient sees “You have hissed all my mystery lectures.’’

Spoonerisms, like the malapropisms mentioned earlier, feed off the playful twist into the bizarre that is achieved through the rearrangement of words. They can depict people as careless or describe the peculiarities and nuances of spoken language.

2- Pun

A pun is a type of wordplay that uses words in their multiple meanings or other words with similar pronunciations to create a joke, witty saying or to make a persuasive point.

For instance, the expressions such as ‘I was once a baker but could not make enough dough’. This is an instance of puns, which aims at poking fun, and interest the readers. They are very close to malapropisms as both of them are the result of wordplay for humor.

See also: Literary Devices That Start With M

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