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Definition: An unintentionally misuse of a similar sounding word.

Pronunciation: Mala-prop-ism. As with the comedy of Carrot Top, the emphasis is on the ‘prop’…

Origin: From the character Mrs Malaprop in the 18th century Sheridan play, ‘The Rivals’. Mrs Malaprop was given to the ridiculous misuse of elaborate words.

Why this word?

In German, the word ‘Fahr-stuhl’ is an elevator. The word ‘Roll-stuhl’ is a wheelchair. Frankfurt airport, age 19. I had just landed and wanted to find the elevator to the train station so that I could begin my new life as a student in the University of Tuebingen. Realising that the main obstacle to overcome when learning a new language is confidence, I assuredly asked everyone where I could find the ‘Roll-stuhl’. I was only later to learn of my malapropism – and why it was that German people asked about elevators stared at one’s legs. Additionally, I learned that the main obstacle to overcome when learning a language is not confidence – it’s words…


“We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile.”
-George W. Bush

How to use this word

My wife and I have been debating the difference between homonym and malapropism all evening. Could misuse of the homonyms ‘their, there and they’re’ be construed as a malapropism? Given that readers of this site probably see themselves, as we do, as protectors of linguistic integrity … we would like to suggest that the term ‘malapropism’ be added to your arsenal of weaponry available to combat the tyranny of the ‘their, there and they’re’ scourge. For too long have we tolerated the homonymocracy. It’s time to strike back. The next time you see a misused ‘their, there or they’re’, don’t feel that a gentle push in the correct direction is needed. Explain, instead, that a malaproprism is a term used to define ridiculously misused words. Then tell them that you are defining their use of ‘their, there or they’re’ as a malaproprism. That’s right – you get to be that guy.

PS – to those who suggest that our use of malapropism in this manner is incorrect and should only be applied to the ridiculous – let me point out that ridiculousness is in the eye of the beholder!


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Written by Sean Carabini

Seán Carabini is a Dublin-based author. To date, Seán has written the humorous travel memoirs 'Sticking Out in Minnesota' and 'American Road', as well as 'American Road: The poems' - a book of travel poetry related to the memoir. Seán has also developed a podcast based on the book - subscribe to the American Road podcast today! Seán is a committee member of the Irish Writers' Union.

Chrissy Skelton is Seán Carabini's editor. A graduate of the University of Minnesota's Anthropology programme, Chrissy emerged armed with an arsenal of little-known words and cumbersome jargon - all of which will now be off-loaded onto 'unusedwords' readers!


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