When someone commits an error of malapropism, they incorrectly substitute a word that sounds similar to the original, but is far different in meaning. It is a form of catachresis, which means the incorrect use of a word. The three main features of malapropism that separate it from other grammatical or linguistic errors are: 1) the word used has a different meaning than the word the speaker intended to use, 2) the erroneous word sounds very similar to the intended word, and 3) the incorrect word is a recognizable word in the individual’s native language.
The word malapropism comes from a character named Mrs. Malaprop, who continually uses words incorrectly in Richard Sheridan’s play The Rivals (1775). The French phrase mal a propos, meaning “bad for the purpose,” may be the original term Sheridan translated to form his character’s name.
The strategy of malapropism is typically used to produce a comic effect. In The Rivals, for example, Mrs. Malaprop states that she wouldn’t want her daughter “to be a progeny of learning.” She has incorrectly substituted the word “progeny,” meaning offspring, for the similar sounding word “prodigy” which means a highly talented youth.
Many authors use malapropism in their novels and short stories as well. For example, Barbara Kingsolver, in The Poisonwood Bible, provides her character Rachel with reckless malaprops such as “feminine wilds” instead of “feminine wiles” and her reference to the Christian “system of marriage called monotony” when she means to say "monogamy."
Shakespeare used malapropism to produce comic effect in his plays of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, long before Sheridan’s character helped to coin the term. For example, in Much Ado About Nothing, Dogberry says, “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons." He means to communicate that they have apprehended to suspicious persons. Additionally, Shakespeare’s character Launcelot, in The Merchant of Venice, describes Shylock as “the devil incarnal,” when he means to say “the devil incarnate.”
This comedic effect can also be found in several pop culture icons of television and movie genres. For example, in the film My Favorite Year, Belle Carroca invites guests to her home saying, “Welcome to my humble chapeau.” Chapeau is the french word for hat, while her intended word, chateau, means house.
Another example is Archie Bunker, famous for his political incorrectness on the television show All in the Family, who used instances of malapropism to reveal his ignorance. In one episode he uses the erroneous term "groin-acologist" for the term "gynecologist." These types of comedic malapropism errors are committed by many television characters including Latka from Taxi, Cosmo Kramer from Seinfeld, and Doug Heffernan from The King of Queens.