The Grammarphobia Blog

Does Mrs. Malaprop have a rival?

Q: I’ve always thought that the terms “malaprop” and “malapropism” come from a character in a Sheridan play. But I recently heard that they predate the play and come from a French expression. Which is right?

A: The terms “malaprop” and “malapropism” refer to the unintentionally comic misuse of a word, especially by confusing it with a similar-sounding one. An example might be President Bush’s remark at a bill-signing in 2002 about “weapons of mass production.”

The nouns “malaprop” and “malapropism” were indeed inspired by Mrs. Malaprop, a character in “The Rivals,” a 1775 play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And they did not predate Sheridan’s play.

In fact, the earliest OED citation for “malaprop” is from 1823, 48 years after the play appeared. The earliest citation for “malapropism” (in Charlotte Bronte’s novel Shirley) is from 1849, 74 years after the play.

Of course Sheridan’s name for the character was obviously suggested by the adverb “malapropos,” which has been part of the English lexicon since at least 1668. But “malapropos” merely means in an inappropriate or inopportune manner, and doesn’t suggest a misuse of words. It comes from the French phrase “mal á propos,” which means much the same as the English version.

I can’t conclude this without mentioning what many people consider the pinnacle of Mrs. Malaprop’s malapropisms: “He is the very pineapple of politeness.”