malapropism: the unintentional misuse of a word by confusion with one of similar sound, especially when creating a ridiculous effect (example: the very pineapple of politeness for the very pinnacle of politeness)—cf. also eggcorn, spoonerism and marrowsky
The word malapropos means, as an adverb, in an inopportune or inappropriate way, and, as an adjective, inopportune or inappropriate.
It is from the French locution mal à propos, literally ill to purpose, composed of the adverb mal, meaning ill, the preposition à, meaning to, and the noun propos, purpose. The locution à propos means appropriate to a particular situation, while à propos de means with reference to.
One of the earliest occurrences of malapropos is from Of Dramatick Poesie, an Essay (London, 1668), by the English poet, playwright and critic John Dryden (1631-1700):
There is no Theatre in the world has any thing so absurd as the English Tragi-comedie, ’tis a Drama of our own invention, and the fashion of it is enough to proclaim it so; here a course of mirth, there another of sadness and passion; a third of honour, and fourth a Duel: Thus in two hours and a half we run through all the fits of Bedlam. The French affords you as much variety on the same day, but they do it not so unseasonably, or mal a propos as we.
In a letter written from Paris, dated 19th March 1854, the Scottish physician and author John Brown (1810-82), telling his wife of La Crise, a play he had seen the day before at the theatre, used malapropos as a noun, but apparently in the sense of a misunderstanding:
A husband calls in the Dr. to tell him that his wife has gone all queer after 10 years’ happiness, that she is mad about socialism. The Dr. offers to cure her, and after a great many malapropos, the wife, who is a fine creature, and the Dr., who is a good sort of fellow, find themselves in their very great passion forced to run off with each other.
One of the characters of The Rivals (London, 1775), a comedy by the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816), is named Mrs. Malaprop, from malapropos, because—as it is specified in the play itself—her vanity makes her “deck her dull chat with hard words which she don’t understand”; for example, she says:
You will promise to forget this fellow—to illiterate [obliterate] him, I say, quite from your memory.
She should be mistress of orthodoxy [orthography], that she might not mis-spell, and mis-pronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do; and likewise that she might reprehend [apprehend] the true meaning of what she is saying.
The first known user of malaprop as a common noun was the English poet George Gordon Noel Byron (1788-1824), but—contrary to what the Oxford English Dictionary (3rd edition, 2000) indicates—he did not use it in the sense of a mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one. He wrote in his journal, on 6th March 1814:
To-day C. called, and, while sitting here, in came Merivale. During our colloquy, C. (ignorant that M. was the writer) abused the ‘mawkishness of the Quarterly Review of Grimm’s Correspondence.’ I (knowing the secret) changed the conversation as soon as I could; and C. went away, quite convinced of having made the most favourable impression on his new acquaintance. Merivale is luckily a very good-natured fellow, or God he knows what might have been engendered from such a malaprop.
Lord Byron therefore did not use malaprop with reference to Sheridan’s play but as an abbreviation of malapropos in the sense of an inappropriate situation.
However, in an article titled The Sermon. Much Ado About Nothing, Act IV. Scene 2., published in The Drama; or, Theatrical Pocket Magazine (London) of October 1821, a certain J. W. Dalby used malaprop in the sense of malapropism:
To consider “the humour of making one man desire another to bear it in his mind that he is an ass;” as if, in the case of Dogberry [cf. footnote], a person who had once heard his loquacious malaprops, and attributed them to that conceited ignorance from which they sprang, could ever forget that he was an ass.
The word malapropism seems to have been coined by the English poet, journalist and critic James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) in The Tatler. A Daily Journal of Literature and the Stage (London) of 2nd December 1830:
The laughable comedy of the Rivals was performed here last night, but did not excite half the laughter we have known it. […]
Mrs Glover’s we think a very good Mrs Malaprop, even though we have seen Miss Pope in the character. It is not of so high an order of comedy, as that lady’s; it wants her perfection of old gentlewomanly staidness, and so far wants the highest relish of contrast in its malapropism; but for a picture of a broader sort, fine and flower-gowned and powdered, it is very good indeed. If Miss Pope looked as though she kept the jellies and preserves, Mrs Glover looked as if she eat them.
The English novelist Charlotte Brontë (1816-55) used the word in Shirley. A Tale (London, 1849), written under the pen name of Currer Bell:
Mr. Sam was one of the objects of her aversion; and the more so because he showed serious symptoms of an aim at her hand. The old gentleman, too, had publicly declared that the Fieldhead estate and the De Walden estate were delightfully contagious—a malapropism which rumour had not failed to repeat to Shirley.
Note: In Much adoe about Nothing (Folio 1, 1623), by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Dogberry is a constable notable for his malapropisms; he says, for example:
One word sir, our watch sir haue indeede
comprehended two aspitious persons, & we would haue
them this morning examined before your worship.
Other words or phrases of theatrical origin:
to be decent (sufficiently clothed to see visitors)
bums on seats
Box and Cox
Hamlet without the Prince
to play to the gallery
to steal someone’s thunder