Saturday, August 4, 2012

Malapropisms, Mondegreens & Spoonerisms

Let’s have some fun with English. This post will deal with three types of English mistakes which can be humorous.

Malapropisms are, in my opinion, the funniest. They occur when the speaker substitutes a similar sounding word for the one intended, sometimes resulting in quite a different meaning. The word malapropos means “inappropriate”. The term malapropism comes from an 18th century English play in which a character named Mrs. Malaprop frequently, and hilariously, used words that weren’t quite what she meant. Shakespeare made good use of malapropisms both to inject humor and to show a character’s ignorance. Archie Bunker in the TV show “All in the Family” was famous for his malapropisms like “a woman doctor is only good for women’s problems, like your groinocology”. Most of us have an acquaintance that practices malapropisms frequently; we have to stifle our snickers and then secretly write them down before we forget them.

Malapropisms commonly occur when the speaker is using a figurative expression that they don’t quite understand, and think that any word will do that sounds similar. An example I heard recently was “chopping at the bit”. If you have ever worked with horses, riding or driving, you will know that when a horse is anxious to get going he will chew energetically at the bit in his mouth, thus “chomping at the bit”. My daughter-in-law was telling someone a year or two ago that her daughter was starting to develop a bad habit, but she “nicked it in the butt”. She’s not a gardener.

Technical terms, especially medical, that people are unfamiliar with are often substituted with similar sounding words that sound more familiar. In my health food store I frequently have elderly gentlemen confide in me that they need something to help with their prostrate. I recently heard someone talk about his digestive track. If he had a case of diarrhea I suppose his food might speed through his digestive tract as if it was a racetrack.

Often, though, it is plain carelessness that causes the substitution. I overheard a mother of two young children telling a friend that her kids went to “vocation bible school” last week. While she might wish them to eventually go into the ministry, age 6 or 8 is a bit young for serious training in a profession. For any unfamiliar with the concept, what she meant was “Vacation Bible School” which some churches hold for a week during the summer holidays to entertain young children and teach them biblical principles.

There is a subset of malapropisms, called Eggcorns (named for the example of egg corns for acorns), where the substituted word makes sense, even if the meaning is changed, while malapropisms do not have to make sense. Most of the examples given above could fit in the eggcorn category.

Mondegreens are similar to malapropisms. They result from the mishearing (rather than misremembering or misunderstanding) of a word or phrase from a song or poem. The name comes from a line in an old Scottish poem which an American writer, Sylvia Wright, misheard as a child:
Ye highlands and ye Lowlands, Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O’Moray, and laid him on the green.
What she heard in the last line was “…and Lady Mondegreen”.

Mondegreens commonly occur with phrases whose language is antiquated or of a foreign dialect, as in the founding example. Two great sources are the King James translation of the bible and old hymns. These have the advantage (for Mondegreen genesis that is) of having difficult concepts expressed with unfamiliar words but readily accessible to young children.

My aunt, who had two older sisters named Eva and Frances, thought the line of a hymn “Jesus loves even me” was “Jesus loves Eva and me”. (I’m not sure what she thought Jesus had against Frances). My older brother once thought the last line of Psalm 23 “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” meant that he would be stalked by Shirley and two other girls that he didn’t know. A classic example quoted in the Wikipedia article is a line from a Fanny Crosby hymn “Gladly the cross I’ll bear” misheard as “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear”.

Children can create mondegreens even from familiar songs and words. A good example is Olive, the mean reindeer in the song “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”. You know, the one who “used to laugh and call him names”. [I don’t know who first originated this mondegreen but it's been made into a book (1997) and an animated movie (1999)].

The third type of amusing English error, Spoonerisms, is quite different from the first two. It occurs when parts of words are interchanged, sort of a verbal dyslexia. Its name comes from Rev. William Archibald Spooner of New College, Oxford, who was famous for these slips of the tongue. Apparently students would flock to his lectures hoping to experience one of these first-hand. One attributed to Spooner that is often quoted today is the question “Is it kisstomary to cuss the bride?”

Spoonerisms are not as common as malapropisms or mondegreens. The only one I know of personally (and it’s second hand) was related to my plant ecology class by Dr. Stan Rowe at U of Saskatchewan. A colleague had shared with Dr Rowe his excitement at discovering a group of large stones known in geomorphology as erratic blocks (erratic because they had been transported by glaciers far from their origin, and block because of their large size). The way it came out was “…we came over a hill and there before our eyes was a whole field of erotic blacks.”

Please share examples of any of these that you have heard, either as a comment below or directly to me in an email to


  1. Lorne and I used to sing about bringing forth the the royal duodenum and where angels prostates fall but that was on purpose.
    Then there was Wolfe the donkless hero from The Maple Leaf Forever.
    And Round John Virgin from Silent Night.
    Ev collects the tortured uses of the English language and should have a book when all the guilty parties die off.

  2. Heard another malapropism the other day. A lady was telling me about planting pre-annuals in her garden. I believe she meant perennials.

  3. Related to malapropisms is the use of a wrong homonym in writing. If this has its own name, I'm not aware of it. It can be amusing if the homonym used has another but quite different meaning. An example of this was recently brought to my attention (thanks Blog Fodder) "We await 2015 with baited breath." This causes one to wonder with what they were baiting their breath, and just what they expect to catch with it. More often, however, misuse of homonyms is just annoying and reveals ignorance or carelessness of the writer. For example (on a Facebook post) "...your no longer on my friend list"

  4. Word-a-day just did a week on these funny word errors.
    Here is the end of the week compilation
    and an extra to publish all the mail they got that week
    (my contribution is halfway down Spoonerisms)

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