As a copy editor, grammar errors are usually the source of headaches for me rather than laughter. The more mistakes there are in a manuscript, the bigger my headache. Malapropisms, however, are a special case.
What Is a Malapropism?
A malapropism is basically a misuse of words. In both writing and speech, people often use the wrong word, generally a similar-sounding word to the correct word, but with a completely different meaning. You might do this with song lyrics. I know I sang “the cross-eyed bear that you gave to me” instead of “the cross I bear” when listening to Alanis Morrissette’s “You Oughta Know” for a long time before learning my mistake. There are many other famous examples, and most of them are pretty funny.
This error is also extremely common in writing, and I come across new and creative ones on an almost daily basis. Some of the most delightful malapropisms I can recall coming across are as follows:
“He’s a bit of a damp squid.” This one actually makes a kind of sense, and you can see why someone might think it is correct. However, the right expression is “a damp squib,” which is an explosive that fails to ignite, hence the meaning of the phrase—something that underperforms or fails to meet expectations.
“He was a great worrier.” This is a fine sentence, but in the context of the text, it was clear that the author meant “a great warrior.” I was charmed by this mistake, but the image of a neurotic individual instead of a powerful fighter is definitely not something you want sneaking into the final draft of your manuscript.
“I looked up at him with hasty eyes.” It took me a while to work this one out. What is a hasty eye? It conjures a very strange picture. Eventually I reached the conclusion that the author meant “hazy.”
“It was an effluent part of the city.” I love this one so much. Of course, the author meant “affluent,” meaning rich, rather than “effluent,” which often refers to sewage. I know which part of the city I’d rather live in.
“This photograph betrays her features very effectively.” In this instance, the author meant “portrays” but ended up with a much more interesting sentence.
“I hate to tell you this, but your husband is in a comma.” This is more confusing news than bad news. When you mean “coma” instead of “comma,” it’s probably not the time for a humorous misunderstanding.
“The dog's fur was griddled with lice.” I am pretty sure the author meant “riddled” unless she was experimenting with some very creative cooking methods.
“Her room compromised a worn mattress in the corner and nothing else.” “Compromised” and “comprised” are often confused. This example left me wondering what the room was doing to the poor mattress to leave it in such a vulnerable state.
How to Avoid Malapropisms
There is no foolproof way to avoid falling into the malapropism trap. There are so many different and unique variations, it’s almost impossible to identify them all. In my experience, the single best way to learn which words are correct in which contexts is to read more. Read a wide variety of books to improve your vocabulary in your own writing. If you get your books edited professionally, you can also comb through the corrections and identify any common malapropisms you are guilty of. This will help you to avoid these particular mistakes in the future.
Have you come across any hilarious malapropisms that stick in your mind? Share them below!