What malapropisms reveal about how the dictionary in our head might be organized: Lexicon Valley

Lexicon Valley Discusses How Malapropisms Provide Insight Into Our Mental Lexicon

Lexicon Valley Discusses How Malapropisms Provide Insight Into Our Mental Lexicon

A show about the mysteries of English.
Oct. 16 2012 2:58 PM

Malapropisms: the Pineapple of Linguistic Errors

What misspeaking might reveal about the way our mental dictionary is organized.

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Listen to Lexicon Valley Episode No. 19: Here’s to You Mrs. Malaprop

Ever since Richard Brinsley Sheridan created the chronically misspeaking character of Mrs. Malaprop in his 18th-century romantic comedy The Rivals, we’ve had a convenient word with which to point out other people’s linguistic inferiority. But is saying “epitaphs” when you really mean “epithets,” as Mrs. Malaprop did, really a sign of ignorance? In fact, there’s much more to malapropisms than you might think. Listen as Bob Garfield and I discuss what a common speech error reveals about the way that our mental lexicon—that is, the dictionary in our head—is likely organized.


You can also read the transcript of this episode below.

Mike Vuolo Mike Vuolo

Mike Vuolo is a radio and podcast producer and the host of Lexicon Valley.

You'll find every Lexicon Valley episode at slate.com/lexiconvalley, or in the player below:

Send your thoughts about the show to slatelexiconvalley@gmail.com.

BOB: From Washington, D.C. this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I’m Bob Garfield with Mike Vuolo and today episode No. 19, titled “Here’s to You Mrs. Malaprop,” wherein we discuss what a common slip of the tongue might say about our mental lexicon. Yo Mike. What's happenin'?


MIKE: Hey Bobby. How ya doin'?

BOB: Splendid thank you, as always.

MIKE: So, I'm holding in my hand right now a really fun book that I read recently. In fact, its official release date is tomorrow Oct. 16 and it inspired this week's episode of Lexicon Valley.

BOB: Ohhh, yeah, now see hence my splendidosity. I know what book you're talking about.


MIKE: Yeah?

BOB: 'Cause I—what do you call it—wrote it.

MIKE: Yeah, it's a comic crime novel called Bedfellows and you wrote it. Congratulations.

BOB: Thank you very much.


MIKE: So I think that you should explain, in a few sentences, what Bedfellows is about.

BOB: Can I just say one thing first?

MIKE: Mm-hmm.

BOB: This is my first novel but it's not my novel with a capital "N," so please, I don't want our listeners to judge me that I should finally after, you know, in my mid-50s write a novel and it turns out to be this.


MIKE: It's not your Great American Novel?

BOB: No, no. I call it a semi-comic, semi-thriller. It was meant of course to be a comic thriller, but it's not that funny and it's not all that exciting.

MIKE: [laughing]

BOB: [laughing] But I did my best. You know what happened? I was in the shower and I got this stupid idea. You know, it's in the middle of this economic extremis that we're all going through and what about the mob? How are they making out and what steps do they have to take while the economy is getting back on the rails? And I thought gosh what a great idea for a movie, a down-on-its-luck mob. And I have a friend who is a, he runs a movie studio. And I called him, I said OK, here's the idea, right, and I tell him. He says, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh. I said what do you think? He said, uhh, yeah nobody's bought a mob movie in Hollywood since about 1975, so no. But, he said if you write it as a novel and it's successful, someone might option it and, you know, make a movie of it. So I wrote a novel.

MIKE: You did. And if my name was Harvey Weinstein I would push this puppy through the Hollywood pipeline.

BOB: Well, from your lips to God's ears.

MIKE: Well, it's really funny and inventive and probably offensive to Italian-Americans, wouldn't you say?

BOB: I would say probably offensive to Italian-Americans but almost everybody else as well. [laughing] Because, there's just hardly an ethnicity that is spared from the things that come out of the mouths of these characters.

MIKE: Well, most of them are Italian-American and the half of me that is Italian-American was very offended but the half of me that's Jewish loves Italian-American stereotypes, so there's a real conflict raging inside me.

BOB: [laughing] In fairness Mike, were there not a significant number of Jewish stereotypes in there as well?

MIKE: Oh yeah, no, there were.

BOB: Yeah, it's an equal-opportunity outrage.

MIKE: But in any case, what inspired this week's episode is that one of the central characters in the book—the central character maybe, a mafia boss known as Don Donato—makes occasional malapropisms. He uses the wrong word. For example, he refers to Hezbollah as halvah, which is a sesame snack. And at one point he uses the word fasciitis when what he means is facetious.

BOB: Yeah, and he has a hard time—I don't know if this is quite a malaprop—but he has a hard time with aphorisms too. You know he gets things a little off, mainly because he sort of conflates one saying with another and it just leads to a little bit of confusion.

MIKE: Also, a listener of Lexicon Valley wrote recently in an iTunes review that every time he or she listens to an episode of this show, "I find myself committing whatever linguistic solipsism was the topic for that day." Now, what that person meant so say was "whatever linguistic solecism." Solipsism, the word they used, is a kind of self-obsession or egocentricity. Solecism, the word they meant, is a social or grammatical mistake or faux pas.

BOB: So that's one of the more learned malaprops. This is a guy with a vocabulary that he's almost got command of.

MIKE: Yeah, but do you appreciate the irony of someone intending to say solecism and instead committing a solecism by using a malapropism?

BOB: It's a little delicious, but I gotta give him props, or malaprops, for having any access to both solipsism and solecism. I mean, good for him. It's dangerous using words.

MIKE: So, between Don Donato in your book and this Lexicon Valley listener, whom I've now pilloried but we don't know that person's name so no harm, the ...

BOB: So please do write to Lexicon Valley and ...

MIKE: [laughing] Yeah, we'll make fun of you.

BOB: ... risk having your letter ridiculed on our show.

MIKE: Well, the universe I think was telling us that we had to talk about malapropisms. And I think that you're gonna learn a few things, Bob, about malapropisms that you might wish you had known before writing Bedfellows.

BOB: OK, well I'm all ears.

MIKE: Before we talk about what we mean when we call something a malapropism, I think we should first talk about a few things that we don't mean. A few things that are speech errors but they're not true malapropisms. So, in linguistics there are certain speech errors that are called anticipations. For example, if I wanted to say "the early bird gets the worm" but instead I said "the burly bird gets the worm," that's because I'm anticipating the "b" sound in bird and using it too soon. Hence, burly bird.

BOB: Mm-hmm.

MIKE: There's a very famous example of this kind of speech error. Once, when Ted Kennedy was giving a speech about education, he said, "Our national interest ought to be to encourage the breast and brightest." And, you know, a lot of people jumped on that and they said, oh my God, look at that, it's a Freudian slip.

BOB: Yeah, had Alan Simpson made that mistake I don't think, you know, anyone would have remembered, but ...

MIKE: Right.

BOB: ... you know.

MIKE: I think all that happened there was that he was anticipating the "br" sound in brightest and used it in best. And then there are speech errors that are sort of the opposite of that. They're called perseverations. So, for example, if I wanted to say "it's raining cats and dogs" but instead I said "it's raining rats and dogs," that because the "r" sound from raining is persevering in the next word.

BOB: I'm not sure that I've ever encountered that, but OK.

MIKE: It's actually not uncommon.

BOB: So, if both of those things happen at the same time you get into this category of intentionally contorted speech called spoonerisms.

MIKE: Or, actually, not intentionally. In a spoonerism you're transposing two sounds from two different words. I remember when I was in middle school one day I called my friend Ed and his mom answered the phone. She was not a native English speaker. She was from China. And she told me that Ed wasn't in right now, he was outside "lowing the mawn." And then I made fun of her and I hung up the phone.

BOB: [laughing] As one would.

MIKE: Yeah. So, another speech error that we wouldn't consider a malapropism is something called a blend. You know, when we're talking we're constantly making these split-second decisions about which words to choose and sometimes we're choosing between two synonyms. So if I were telling you a story and deciding in the moment between the words leaping and jumping it might come out "lumping." That's called a blend. Now, all of these speech errors often result in real words—not the right word—but real words, yet they're not what we would consider malapropisms.

BOB: Mike, I'll bet that any minute now you're gonna stop telling me what isn't a malapropism and, you know, maybe tell me what is.

MIKE: Well, any minute but not this minute. I wanna mention one more kind of speech error that we're not talking about when we're talking about malapropisms, and this is when you choose the wrong word but it's related semantically to the one that you're intending. So maybe you say arm when you mean leg, or hot when you mean cold or you choose something in the same category as something else, like an article of clothing. You say belt when you really mean tie.

BOB: So Mike I get intuitively why these things don't constitute the kind of speech error that Mrs. Malaprop was famous for, but I don't quite have the definition. Is there a rule that defines what constitutes a bona fide malapropism.

MIKE: I just wanna mention that all of these errors we just talked about, the interference that's causing you to say the wrong word is more or less apparent, right? There's not a lot of mystery as to why that particular erroneous word came out, or at least we can make a good case for why. All of these various errors are interesting—and, you know, maybe we'll talk about them on some future episode—but they're not what we would consider a proper malapropism. So what is?

Well, first of all, as you alluded to, the word malapropism comes from the name of a character in an 18th-century play called The Rivals by a guy named Richard Sheridan. There's a character in the play named Mrs. Malaprop—her name Malaprop translates from the French as kind of inappropriate—and she's always using the wrong word. So, for example, she uses the word epitaphs when she means epithets and she uses the word allegory when she means alligator, which I think is kind of a funny one. That sort of speech error is now known as a malaprop or malapropism.

BOB: Yeah, Mrs. Garfield says burglar when she means bagel and once famously asked somebody where is the nearest Toaster's Choice, by which of course she meant Trader Joe's [laughing].

MIKE: [laughing] How did the person answer that?

BOB: Why, he was flummoxed Mike. And there was an argument that ensued because she couldn't believe someone would not know where in the neighborhood resided the Toaster's Choice. [laughing]

MIKE: The confusion of a non-native English speaker notwithstanding, there are a couple of researchers—David Fay and Anne Cutler—who compiled a list of a couple thousand speech errors from real life, where somebody said a word that was not the one that they intended. They then culled from this list all of the errors that we just talked about. The anticipations, the blends, the semantically related ones, they took all of these out, and were left with about 200 or so that they considered true malapropisms.

BOB: Mm-hmm.

MIKE: For example, and these are real examples from their list, saying determination when the person meant denomination, or equivocal for equivalent, inoculation for inauguration, ludicrous for lucrative. And they came up with what they called the "three major characteristics" of malapropisms, in general. And I'll just sort of paraphrase them. First, the word that you mistakenly say is a real word, not the right word but not a nonsense word.

BOB: Mm-hmm.

MIKE: That doesn't mean that it makes sense in context. It doesn't mean the sentence is actually intelligible. It just means the word that you're using is a real word. Second, the word you say and the word you mean to say don't appear to be related in meaning. And third, the two words are related in some significant way in pronunciation. So, so far it seems that you did a good job in contriving malapropisms for your character Don Donato to say in your book. But ...

BOB: I'm sorry Mike what book is that?

MIKE: [laughing] Why, a comedic crime novel called Bedfellows, available in stores tomorrow.

BOB: Just wondered. Thanks for clearing that up.

MIKE: But a linguist might spot your malapropisms as fakes, as not having occurred truly inadvertently in real life. And I'll tell you why but first I wanna take a short break to mention our sponsor Audible.com.


MIKE: OK, where were we?

BOB: Well, uh, you were getting to the part where you were gonna tell me why I suck at inventing malapropisms.

MIKE: [laughing] Oh, right. OK, so the first thing that David Fay and Anne Cutler noticed when they analyzed their list of about 200 malapropisms is that in 99 percent of the cases, the word erroneously spoken and the intended word were the same part of speech. So, if we look at one of the examples that we mentioned from Bedfellows, Don Donato says fasciitis, a noun, when he means facetious, an adjective.

BOB: Ahhhhhh.

MIKE: That's really rare according to Fay and Cutler's data, so rare that it only happened once or twice in their entire list of 200. Now, another thing that they noticed was that 87 percent of the time the two words had the same number of syllables. So if we look at the other example from Bedfellows that we mentioned, Don Donato says halvah instead of Hezbollah. Both are nouns, but halvah has two and Hezbollah three syllables. It's not as rare for that to be the case but it's unlikely.

BOB: Huh. That's concerning. On the other hand, it's still a zany romp through an unexpected cast of characters right?

MIKE: [laughing] Yeah it is. And, to be fair, most of your readers will probably not be linguists and even the ones that are might not know this.

BOB: Now, I wanna ask you this. The reason Don Donato, my character, makes these mistakes is that while he's not stupid—you come to discover that he's in many ways extremely bright—he is significantly undereducated and ignorant. And when I hear malaprops, I don't associate them with speech errors. I associate them with knowledge errors and I kind of smirk to myself because I'm not a good person.

MIKE: The evidence actually suggests that you're probably wrong about that. I mean, everybody makes malapropisms, people who are knowledgeable, people who are not knowledgeable. And, in fact, there is evidence that suggests that people who talk faster tend to make more malapropisms than slower talkers.

BOB: Hmm.

MIKE: It's a common misperception that it's just about ignorance, but it's often used in that way. That's how it was used by Sheridan to depict Mrs. Malaprop, somebody who was reaching intellectually above her station.

BOB: Aha! That's exactly, exactly it. That's exactly what I'm going for, just trying too hard and coming off as even ditzier than she actually was.

MIKE: Yeah, and that's how it was used in All in the Family. Archie Bunker was famous for making malapropisms. One of my favorites was when he said, "We need a few laughs to break up the monogomy."

BOB: [laughing] Yeah, that's classic Archie Bunker.

MIKE: Let's just get back to where we were before. I mentioned that 87 percent of the malapropisms that Fay and Cutler studied had the same number of syllables as the intended word. Of those, 98 percent had the same stress pattern. So, let's take a couple of examples from real life. Years ago, I worked in a restaurant and my boss, the owner, had a penchant for making malapropisms. One day he was talking to me about rearranging some of the chairs in the restaurant and he said something like, "Well, if we move those over there then it'll form a triangle and that aisle right there, that'll be the hypothesis of the triangle."

BOB: [laughing]

MIKE: What he meant of course was the "hypotenuse" of the triangle, but you can see that's a perfect malapropism as Fay and Cutler describe. Both are nouns, both four syllables, both with the stress on the second syllable. Same guy, different occasion. He's explaining to a customer various menu combination that you can put together. And he runs through a few of them and he then says, "and other permeations like that." What he meant was other "permutations," but again perfect malapropism. Both are nouns, both are four syllables and both have the stress on the third syllable in this case.

BOB: Yeah, well, so as it turns out Mike, in addition to not knowing anything about mob life, mattress discounting, chiropractic and the street map of Brooklyn, I didn't know how to work a malapropism.

MIKE: That's why they call it a novel. You made it up.

BOB: I did. I made it up, although I had help. God was my copilot and Google was my coauthor.

MIKE: So, I think one of the reasons that you may not have gotten malaprops right if you look at the data is because you were interested in malapropisms for their comedic value, right? So you chose words that sounded funny to you. Of course, linguists are interested in malapropisms, and speech errors in general, for a different reason. I had a recent conversation with a guy named Michael Erard, who's a journalist and a linguist who wrote a book several years ago, a very popular book, called "Um ...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders and What They Mean." And I asked him why linguists are so enamored of speech errors like malapropisms. And here's what he said.

ERARD: They're interested in using slips of the tongue to essentially reverse-engineer the language processes and try to figure out how meaning and words and strings of sounds in our heads gets put together in what stages in order for us to pronounce them. So, from the very first moment of trying to formulate an idea to actually speaking it takes about 600 milliseconds, which seems kind of long to me. Linguists are interested in what happens in that 600 milliseconds.

BOB: So what he's saying is that actually speech errors are giving linguists clues to how speech works when it's working right.

MIKE: Yeah, exactly. This reverse engineering that he's talking about is basically the theory that in order to figure out how something works, you investigate how it fails. So if we wanna learn more about how we produce speech, maybe we should look at how it is that we fail in producing the intended speech.

So, imagine that there's a mechanism in your head that's responsible for producing speech. This mechanism is making these moment-to-moment real-time decisions about which specific words to use. Fay and Cutler theorized that this hypothetical mechanism has to know at least two things about a word before you actually use it. One, is it the right part of speech that you need for this point in the sentence? And two, does it have the right meaning? This mechanism has to constantly choose words from what linguists call your mental lexicon, the dictionary in your head, using those two major criteria. So, with that in mind, Fay and Cutler posed the question: What is this mental dictionary like?

BOB: Well I gotta tell you, my mental dictionary is a mess. It's almost like the pages are all out of order and even though I make a living on the radio thinking up words and saying them out loud, I increasingly find myself having difficulty summoning the word in that 600 milliseconds. Every now and then I catch myself—no I don't catch myself, other people catch me—using the wrong word.

MIKE: Well, here's the theory in a nutshell that Fay and Cutler came up with. They said, OK, when you're talking you use these two criteria, part of speech and meaning, to choose words from your mental dictionary and then convert those words into sounds. So, maybe I know I'm looking for a noun at this point in the sentence, it's that thing that people have in their backyard that kids bounce up and down on, I think it's really dangerous, oh right it's a trampoline. And then I say the word trampoline. Now of course that's all happening in, you know, fractions of a second, but part of speech and meaning are the input. The sound "trampoline" is the output. But when you're listening to someone else talk, that process works in reverse ostensibly, right? The input is the sound "trampoline," and then you convert that in your head to oh, that's that thing, that noun, that kids like to jump up and down on.

BOB: Yeeees, go on.

MIKE: OK. Now, if you were gonna design a mental lexicon, a mental dictionary, that was really good for retrieving words for speaking, it would probably look like a thesaurus, right, with words grouped by meaning.

BOB: Mm-hmm.

MIKE: That would be great. But if you were designing a mental lexicon that was really good for comprehending, for listening, it would group words more by the way they sound, since that's all you have to go on when you're listening to someone.

BOB: If I understand what you're saying about what Fay and Cutler are saying, it's that our mental lexicons are organized less for word retrieval and speech than they are for listening and comprehension. And they see malapropisms as evidence for that conclusion, where in speech we're grabbing just perhaps a microsecond too quickly a sound-alike word instead of the word we actually mean.

MIKE: Yeah, exactly. Words that sound alike so much so that they tend to have the same number of syllables and the same stress pattern.

BOB: Like picking the wrong suspect out of a lineup based on superficial similarities in physiognomy.

MIKE: Yeah, and so why would it be that our mental dictionaries are organized much more optimally for comprehending then for speaking. I mean wouldn't it be great if our mental lexicon was like a thesaurus, then we would all be such fluid, fantastic talkers.

BOB: Right, that's a very good question. It was the one I would've asked. What's the answer?

MIKE: [laughing] Well, again, and this is of course theory, Fay and Cutler suggest that it makes sense that our mental lexicon would be arranged optimally for comprehending what other people are saying because there is often ambient, competing noise or other people talking nearby and our brains need to quickly identify the right sounds and compare them to things that sound like them. Whereas, you know, when we're talking, we're not necessarily competing with other noises. We can form the words that we want to form. Of course, sometimes we screw up.

BOB: Hmm. I get all that. And the theory suggests that malapropisms are related to retrieval error, but it's hard for me to buy that the incidence of malapropisms isn't greater in people trying to play vocabulary-wise out of their weight class. Can I play you something that's been driving me crazy for about 20 years?

MIKE: That long?

BOB: Yeah, yeah.

MIKE: Go ahead.

BOB: And the reason it's that long it 'cause it's from maybe my favorite film, one of the greatest films ever made. It's a flaw and it's kind of like the off stitch in a quilt put there on purpose so as not to mock God's perfection. Listen.

TAPE of JULES WINNFIELD in Pulp Fiction:

JULES WINNFIELD: Ezekial 25:17. The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.

BOB: OK, did you hear that Mike?

MIKE: Mm-hmm. Samuel L. Jackson.

BOB: The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Right?

MIKE: Mm-hmm.

BOB: What's wrong with that picture?

MIKE: Inequities.

BOB: Right. The word he was groping for was iniquities, which means evils, acts of evil. And it doesn't mean, you know, general unfairness. There's about two things that Tarantino got wrong in Pulp Fiction and one was not catching that in Samuel L. Jackson's soliloquies, I think four times in the film we hear the same mistake and it drives me up a wall. And if I thought Tarantino were a mega-genius instead of an ultra-genius, I would say he did it on purpose to illustrate the intellectual pretension of this character played by Samuel L. Jackson, Jules. But no, I think Jackson just blew the line four times.

MIKE: Let's assume that it was done on purpose and that it was written into the script. Again, like your malapropisms with Don Donato, those are contrived, right? Those are made up. But if you look at the full data set from Fay and Cutler, and these again are real-life malapropisms that David Fay had collected over time, the vast majority of them are word pairs that any average English speaker would know. You know, I read some of them to you before. I think I used some of the ones that had "harder" words in them, but some of them are radio for radiator, result for regard, inclusion for intrusion. I mean these are not 50 cent words, these are everyday words. Linking for lurking, camera for calendar.

BOB: [affecting an accent] Garfield, Garfield, my driver's license is expiring. We have to go to the DVR [laughing].

MIKE: Boy you really like to make fun of immigrants don't you?

BOB: [laughing] Uh, only those related to me by at least marriage.

MIKE: Well, the point is I think that, and the evidence isn't fully in on this, but I think there probably is some truth to the fact that if you're not as familiar with the words that you’re using then you might be more apt to kind of reach for the wrong one, so to speak, right? When you're reaching into your mental lexicon and choosing something that you know has this cadence, has this syllable count, has this stress pattern, you know that intuitively because you've used the word before. I don't wanna tell you how to rewrite the second printing of Bedfellows, but if you were going to make the character more true-to-life and speak a Fay-Cutler-esque malapropism then you might have him say "factitious" instead of facetious or "fascistic."

BOB: [laughing] Uh ...

MIKE: Which kind of goes with him being a mob boss.

BOB: Yeah, actually I toyed with "fascistic" as a matter of fact. I just thought "fasciitis" was funnier or, to get back to my original point, semi-funnier.

MIKE: Well, it turns out that Don Donato is not the only one reaching above his intellectual station.

BOB: [laughing] Yeah, as always Mike, thank you so, so very much. Your respect touches me profoundly.

MIKE: All right. If you wanna suggest other, even better malapropisms for facetious, you can reach us at slatelexiconvalley@gmail.com.