Named after Mrs. Malaprop, a verbally inept character in Richard Sheridan's play The Rivals (1775), a malapropism is the confusion of two words that sound alike. Think of the albacore (instead of albatross) around Tony Soprano's neck, or Archie Bunker's reference to the Salivation Army.
Malapropisms share three traits: (1) the malapropism is always a real word, (2) it's usually unrelated in meaning to the intended word, and (3) both the error and the intended word are phonologically similar.
Also, as long as you're not the one who makes the verbal slip, a malapropism is occasionally funny.
In his book The Game of Words (Grosset & Dunlap, 1972), Willard R. Espy observed that malapropisms "are as common as dandruff." A self-described logomaniac (someone insanely interested in words), Espy prepared this little quiz to illustrate his point. (You'll find his answers at the end of the quiz.)
The sentences below contain words that are frequently malapropped. Substitute the correct word in each line.
- The doctor said it was desirous to stop smoking.
- Cheer up; I predicate final victory.
- His capacity for hard liquor is incredulous.
- This does not portend to be a great work of art.
- Your contemptuous treatment of me is a great humility.
- Fortuitously for her, she won the sweepstakes.
- His inflammable speech set off a riot.
- Desirous, desirable. Desirous is "desiring"; desirable is "worth wanting; advantageous." "For the sake of your health it is desirable to stop smoking, whether or not you are desirous of doing so."
- Predicate, predict. Predicate, often with "on" or "upon," is "to base or establish"; predict is "to foretell." "My prediction of final victory is predicated upon hard facts."
- Incredulous, incredible. Incredulous is "disbelieving"; incredible is "unbelievable." "I am incredulous of the amount you say he drinks; it is incredible."
- Portend, pretend. Portend is "to presage, foretell"; pretend is "to feign." "He pretends to be an artist, but his work does not portend greatness."
- Humility, humiliation. Humility is "modesty, the quality of being humble"; humiliation is "degradation, or the act of humiliating." "His humility made him immune to humiliation."
- Fortuitously, fortunately. Fortuitous is "utterly accidental"; fortunate is "lucky." "It was fortuitous that she won the sweepstakes--and very fortunate for her."
- Inflammable, inflammatory. Inflammable is "tending to ignite easily and burn rapidly; easily aroused to strong emotion." Inflammatory is "calculated to arouse strong emotion." "The speaker was inflammatory, the audience inflammable; the result was a riot.