Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor


Episode 107: Misnomers and Malapropisms

Fowler's Modern English Usage asserts that, "Lying at the heart of the language is a tendency to confuse like-sounding words." To help us better understand this tendency in a couple of forms, we're joined this week by Catherine Winter, an editor from American Public Media's documentary unit, American RadioWorks.

The two areas we explore this week are misnomer and malapropism.

Winter says that misnomer has a legal meaning and a more general usage meaning, but both share the sense of giving something the wrong name. As such, a misnomer is always a reference to a noun. As an example, Winter cites a story she did a number of years ago as a reporter, when she was covering invasive species in Lake Superior. In the story, Winter described a creature she called a lamprey eel but should have called a sea lamprey. "Sea lampreys are fish, they're not eels," she says. "That would be a misnomer, giving something the wrong name."

Winter says that our language contains a number of misnomers that are not erroneous; they're accepted terms in English. Examples of those types of misnomers include pencil lead (not really lead but graphite), white chocolate (not actually chocolate) and the koala bear (not a true bear). Although strictly speaking these are misnomers, they're correct terms in the language.

Another type of word confusion is a malapropism, which Winter defines as the use of a word that sounds like the word one intends to use but isn't the right word. "Sometimes there are quite humorous results in people using malapropisms," Winter says.

Not coincidentally, the term malapropism comes from a humorous play called The Rivals, written in 1775 by Robert Sheridan. In the play, a character called Mrs. Malaprop (from the French mal à propos—at the wrong time, inappropriate), constantly confuses words. According to Winter, one of Mrs. Malaprop's lines is, "He's the very pineapple of politeness," when she really means pinnacle. The play is rarely produced today. "Mrs. Malaprop doesn't grace the stage very much anymore," Winter says, "but she's still very much a part of our language."

Winter reports that malapropisms occur frequently in speech and even crop up in writing from time to time. "I think what often happens is that somebody's trying to sound a little fancier, and so they use a bigger word that sounds sort of like the word they really mean," she says. "I remember hearing a guy go on and on about 'the histrionics [rather than history] of the Vietnam War', and you do hear people use penultimate to mean ultimate or urbane to mean urban."

Some of Winter's favorite malapropisms come from a Minnesota senator, Clarence Purfeerst, who served in the legislature from 1971 to 1990. "He was often quoted in newspapers as being famous for his malapropisms," Winter says. "He once said, 'Let's dispense with all the discussion and get to the crotch of the matter.' I'm sure he meant crux!"

When it comes to avoiding malapropisms in writing, Winter advises asking someone to proofread your work. "You know for sure that someone else has looked over it for those little errors that all of us miss every once in a while," she says. "That doesn't make you any less of a genius—it just makes you careful."

And as far as avoiding malapropisms in speech is concerned, Winter's suggestion is easy to follow. "Maybe the best advice," she recommends, "would be to stick within the vocabulary that you're quite sure of."

Source: Fowler's Modern English Usage by RW Burchfield

Music from this episode: "It's a Mistake" by Men At Work, "Come Sail Away" by Styx

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