Understanding The Background Of ‘Malapropism’: A Ludicrous Misuse of Word

 ‘Malapropism’ is a compound word derived from three French words ‘ma! a propos’ which means something ‘out of place’. It is defined as ‘a ludicrous misuse of word, especially for one resembling it.’ This confusion between sets of words is characteristic of Mrs. Malaprop—an immortal creation of Sheridan, fit to occupy a prominent place in the portrait-gallery of comic characters in world-literature. Mrs.pro..J. monumental instance of Sheridan’s highly developed artificial ‘humour’ as illustrated in her instinct for ‘a nice derangement on epithets’. Yet she is not a mere stock-character as her very name implies but one instinct with life and vitality, which is a measure of the genius of Sheridan.

As a satirical portrait, she stands for, (i) the type of the provincial woman of the age in her bid for turning out to be a town-lady by her unconscious and wrong use of high-sounding classical words; (ii) the type of the old aunt, jealous in her guard over her niece with her ante-diluvium ideas of female education; (iii) the type of the old husband-hunting woman who thinks herself charming enough to attract men. Perhaps Sheridan actually met such types during his stay at Bath. Perhaps actual living examples of Mrs. Malaprop with her weaknesses—misuse of classical words, vanity, stupidity and egoism—were a standing joke in cultured fashionable circles at Bath in real life. Sheridan’s constructive skill manifests itself in the way in which he makes this inimitable figure a virtue of necessity.

Sheridan may have taken his model for Mrs. Malaprop from the unforgettable Dogberry of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing or from his mother’s, Mrs. Tryfort, another Dogberrian character in her play, A Journey to Bath. Whatever the source, Mrs. Malaprop is simply unique and remains among a host of dramatic predecessors and imitators, the unrivalled ‘queen of dictionary’.

Typical examples of ‘malapropism’ may be indicated as follows:

“But above all, Sir Anthony, she should be mistress of orthodoxy (orthography), that she might not mis-spell, and mispronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do ; and likewise that she might reprehend (comprehend) the true meaning of what she is saying. This, Sir Anthony, is what I would have a woman know;—and I don’t think there is a superstitious (superfluous) article in it.”— (I.ii).
There is unconscious irony in her own opinion in that the language which she employs here, gives us a good indication of the kind of education she herself has received and of her pretension to use learned classical words.
(2) Mrs. Malaprop’s violence to 'King’s English' is extremely diverting and is a source of unending fun. Here is another example of unconscious irony which is virtually a kind of self- condemnation of her egoism and vanity, when she says to Absolute
“Sure, if I reprehend (comprehend) anything in this world, is the use of my oracular (vernacular) tongue, and a nice derangement (arrangement) of epitaphs (epithets)”—(lII. iii).
(3) Like Bob Acres (another instance of highly developed artificial humour—the type of
a foolish country-squire aspiring to give himself the airs and looks of a fashionable beau). Mrs. Malaprop has a great stage-part and is always presented in dramatic contrast with other persons who incidentally comment on her ‘absurdities’, ridiculous vanity “and her dull chat with hard words which she don’t understand,” in terms of which Absolute refers to her in his letter to Lydia, which is intercepted by Mrs. Malaprop.
This is Anthony’s sly comment: “You are truly a moderate and polite arguer, for almost every third word you say is on my side of the question”—.(Act I, Sc II). She is so muddleheaded, vain, egotistical and so lacking in a sense of humour that she has not the wit to understand the mock compliments of Sir Anthony or Captain Absolute or Sir Lucius. The sly comment of Sir Lucius when he criticizes the letter from his Delia : “Here are a great many poor words pressed into the service of this note, that would get their habeas corpus from any Court in Christendom “—(II. ii).

Mrs. Malaprop’s mistakes are many and yarned. It seems there is some method in her madness. We may classify them as follows:
(1) When the sounds of the two words are almost similar except for a syllable or two or a few letters. For example
(a) Progeny for prodigy ; laconically for ironically ; contagious for contiguous; commotion for emotion; superstitious for superfluous ; preposition for proposition ; oracular for vernacular ; epitaphs for epithets etc.
(b) Where high sounding and bombastic classical words with meanings different from that of the intended words, e.g., illuminate for elucidate; physiognomy for phraseology; ineffectual for intellectual etc.
(c) Where she is not very far wrong, the meaning being a little far-fetched or capable of being stretched to bear the meaning intended, e.g., alacrity for affability; dissolve for resolve etc.
(d) Where she happens to use a word having a contrary meaning to the one intended; e. g., anticipate for retrospection simulation for dissimulation, malevolence for benevolence; derangement for arrangement; ingenuity for ingenuousness.
The above instances are typical. Many more instances can be multiplied.