Sunday, November 11, 2012

Fun with Malapropisms

What is a malapropism?  It's a form of speech error named after the comic character Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Sheridan's 18th century play The Rivals.  Here she is:  a talkative woman with intellectual pretensions, using words whose meanings she doesn't really know.

Celia Imrie as Mrs. Malaprop

For example, Mrs. Malaprop says of an acquaintance that "she's as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile."  She advises another character, "Illiterate him from your memory." She replaces "alligator" and "obliterate" with other, similar-sounding words.

These examples illustrate several important points about malapropisms.

1) A proper malapropism is always a real word.

2) The mistaken word is almost always the same part of speech as the word meant.

3) The mistaken word is usually the same number of syllables as the word meant.

4) The pattern of stresses laid on the syllables is usually the same, as in "alligator" and "allegory" or "obliterate" and "illiterate."

For comic effect, it's good if both the words replaced and the words used to replace them are rather uppity words.

In my novel The Ice Castle, the nomad chief Kanzat fancies himself master of a large vocabulary. He uses big words whenever he can, and often as not he misuses them.  Some of his mistakes are malapropisms; others are neologisms, where he makes up a word that sounds right.

When Kanzat first meets Ivan and Daphne, he uses a number of made-up words:
And envoyed from which commune, shall I ask?
You haven't journaled far, not without tents nor furs nor weapons.
Mute, eh? Speakless but spoke for, I take it?

At other times, he uses real words incorrectly.  These are the true malapropisms. In the middle of the story, Kanzat says of a message he is delivering:
It discerns the little singer.
One of [the Diva's] courtiers, the Lord High Chamberpot or whoever, gave me this and disclaimed it most urchin to deliver. 
Tell me what the missile says. 
In literature, malapropisms are used for comic effect, usually to poke fun at a pretentious person posing as more educated than he is. That's a good description of Kanzat. For me, including him in the second Lexicon book (whose subtitle is An Adventure in Music) provides a way of returning briefly to the kind of wordplay that make the first Lexicon adventure, Lost in Lexicon, such fun to write.

Part of the fun of malapropisms involves introducing ridiculous images in the reader's mind.  In writing these malapropisms, I couldn't help but picture a royal official squatting over his chamberpot and an unwashed, ragged child delivering a missive that shoots out of her hand.

Have you ever  uttered a malapropism?  Have you heard others use them?  Do you have a favorite you've read or heard?  Send them in!

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