A pedants’ guide to foot-in-mouth disease

Birds are entangled by their feet and men by their tongues. Thomas Fuller (1608-61), English clergyman and wit

Bloopers are the lowlife of verbal error, but spoonerisms are a different fettle of kitsch. Roger Rosenbaltt


For my first post of 2013 I want to talk about a subject dear to my heart – a verbal gaffe known as the malapropism. However, first I need to define what a malapropism is NOT. There are other speech errors which shouldn’t be considered true malapropisms. I am going to provide a few examples of these.

Firstly we have anticipations, where you anticipate a sound that is about to come up.

Example:  “Our national interest ought to be to encourage the breast and brightest.” Teddy Kennedy (George W. Bush has also made this mistake – see the video above)

The opposite of this is called perseveration, in which the sound from the first word carries on into the next one.

Example:  rule of thumb becomes rule of rum

Thirdly there are blends, in which the speaker has to decide between two words and ends up saying a mixture of the two.

Example: At the end of today’s lection (lecture/lesson)

Finally we have spoonerisms, in which a speaker accidentally transposes the initial sounds or letters of two or more words, often to humorous effect. They are named after the Reverend Dr. William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930), who attended New College, Oxford, as an undergraduate in 1862, and would remain there for over 60 years in various posts. He probably did make a few unintended transpositions, but the legend soon outstripped the reality. Decades later one of his students lamented that “I was always hoping to hear him utter a spoonerism, but never did.” Anyway here are some of Spooner’s alleged gaffes that I found online:

What he said What he meant
fighting a liar lighting a fire
you hissed my mystery lecture you missed my history lecture
cattle ships and bruisers battle ships and cruisers
nosey little cook cosy little nook
a blushing crow a crushing blow
tons of soil sons of toil
our queer old Dean our dear old Queen
we’ll have the hags flung out we’ll have the flags hung out
you’ve tasted two worms you’ve wasted two terms
our shoving leopard our loving shepherd
a half-warmed fish a half-formed wish
is the bean dizzy? is the Dean busy?

Having looked at what a malapropism is not we need to define what it actually is. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “the usually unintentionally humorous misuse or distortion of a word or phrase; especially the use of a word sounding somewhat like the one intended but ludicrously wrong in the context” There are three typical features of a malapropism:

  1. It is not a nonsense word; it actually exists.
  2. It isn’t related in meaning to the target word.
  3. There are significant similarities in pronunciation with the target word.

The word malapropism comes from the name of a character in an 18th-century play by Richard Sheridan called The Rivals. Mrs. Malaprop (derived from the French phrase mal à propos, literally “ill-suited”), is the butt of many of the jokes in the play, as she is continually coming out with the wrong word:

He is the very pineapple of politeness!” (pinnacle)

I have since laid Sir Anthony’s preposition before her;” (proposition)

Oh! it gives me the hydrostatics to such a degree.” (hysterics)

“…she’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of Nile.” (alligator)

Why, murder’s the matter! Slaughter’s the matter! Killing’s the matter! – but he can tell you the perpendiculars.” (particulars)

His physiognomy so grammatical!” (phraseology)

Sure, if I reprehend any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs!”  (apprehend, vernacular, arrangement, epithets)

This device had been used by other authors before – I can still remember Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing – but malapropism is the word that has stuck. In his book Anguished English, An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language, Richard Lederer has some wonderful examples:

In many states, murderers are put to death by electrolysis.

The marriage was consummated at the altar.

Man arrested for possession of heroine.

And my favourite:

Reagan goes for juggler in Midwest.

This is the power of a great malapropism – it creates a vivid image in your head.

Malapropisms have been the subject of serious academic research. You can learn a lot about how language works from when things go wrong. Anne Cutler of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and David Fay of Verizon Laboratories analysed 183 malapropisms from a speech error corpus. They found that the intended word and the error were in the same grammatical category 99% of the time. They had the same number of syllables 87% of the time. And they shared the same stress pattern 98% of the time. They make an interesting claim: malapropisms are not the result of the misuse of a word, but of a bad selection somewhere in the speech production process.

Why do they happen? Speaking is complicated. We have to summon the right word from our mental dictionary in around 600 milliseconds. There are two important criteria:

  1. Is it the right part of speech that you need for this point in the sentence?
  2. Does it have the right meaning?

What’s more our mental lexicons prioritise listening and comprehension over word retrieval. Consequently, we tend to go for a sound-alike word instead of the word we really want. It is hardly surprising that sometimes things go awry.

This is all well and good but isn’t there also the effect of speakers trying to punch above their linguistic weight? They want to appear erudite, but they end up with egg on their face. Of course we tend to be less charitable about other people’s mistakes, especially if they have comedy value. Who can resist a chuckle when politicians, celebrities or sportspeople use the wrong word? So I will finish with a few of my personal favourites:

When Iraq is liberated, you will be treated, tried, and persecuted as a war criminal.” George W. Bush

“I can say that without fear of contraception.”  Hylda Baker

“Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.” Dan Quayle

“Let’s dispense with all the discussion and get to the crotch of the matter.” Clarence Purfeerst, Minnesota Democrat senator


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