5 Funny Figures of Speech

By Mark Nichol

Wordplay is a fertile field for study in English. Although the following forms of humor should be used sparingly if at all, writers should be familiar with them and their possibilities.

1. Malapropism
A malapropism, the substitution of a word with a similar-sounding but incongruous word, may be uttered accidentally or, for humorous effect, may be deliberate. The name derives from that of Mrs. Malaprop, a character in an eighteenth-century play who often uttered such misstatements; one of her comments, for example, is “she’s as headstrong as an allegory,” when she meant to say “alligator.” (The word ultimately derives from the French phrase mal à propos, meaning “poorly placed.”) Numerous characters are assigned this amusing attribute; the Shakespearean character Dogberry’s name inspired an alternate label.

2. Spoonerism
Spoonerisms are similar to malapropisms; the distinction is that a spoonerism is a case of metathesis, in which parts of two words are exchanged, rather than one word substituted for another. This figure of speech was named after a nineteenth-century Oxford academician who appears to have been credited with various misstatements he did not make; one of the many apocryphal examples is “a well-boiled icicle” (in lieu of “a well-oiled bicycle”).

3. Paraprosdokian
The word for this type of wordplay, from Greek (meaning “against expectation”) but coined only a few decades ago, refers to a sentence with a humorously abrupt shift in intent, such as “I don’t belong to an organized political party — I’m a Democrat,” from twentieth-century American humorist Will Rogers, or Winston’s Churchill’s summation of a colleague, “A modest man, who has much to be modest about.”

4. Tom Swifty
This name for an adverb, used in an attribution for dialogue, that punningly applies to the words spoken (for example, “‘We just struck oil!’ Tom gushed”) was inspired by the writing style in a series of children’s novels featuring the character Tom Swift, written continuously since the early twentieth century. Although no such puns appear in these stories, such examples are suggestive of the overwrought adverbs that are a distinctive feature. (Originally, such a pun was called a Tom Swiftly.)

5. Wellerism
A Wellerism, named after a Dickensian character, is a statement that includes a humorous contradiction or a quirky lapse in logic, such as “‘So I see,’ said the blind carpenter as he picked up his hammer and saw,” or a prosaic similar construction whose humor derives from a pun, as in “‘We’ll have to rehearse that,’ said the undertaker as the coffin fell out of the car” (which plays on the prefix re- in association with the noun hearse).

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7 Responses to “5 Funny Figures of Speech”

  • Alice

    I used to work with an intellectually challenged woman who was famous for her unintentional malapropisms. For example, one I remember was, “He told me to bring the crouton (instead of futon) downstairs.” Another: “i would like to have a celery phone.” (I think you can figure that one out.) Or: “I have a friend in Pepsi-Cola (Pensacola), Florida.” Do you see a pattern here? She was hilarious!

  • :Donna Marie

    lol, Alice 🙂 I’m pretty sure that’s how the language itself also gets corrupted, like the word “supposably” which I believe is the misunderstanding of the word “supposedly.”

  • Graeme Creed

    I like phrases that sound OK but when you really think about them contradict themselves. Like “I have insomnia but I am not going to lose any sleep over it” or “I would give my right arm to be ambidextrous”

    Any others?

  • thebluebird11

    @Graeme: LOL. I wish I could think of more like those!

    Dave Barry is a genius with paraprosdokian humor. When I tell you that I need to wear, umm, protective underclothing when I read his stuff, I am not joking.

    Sometimes when I’m listening to doctors dictating reports on patients, they make little slips, and one spoonerism I remember was a doctor saying that a patient developed back pain after doing “leavy hifting” (instead of heavy lifting). There was another doctor who mentioned something about a patient having allergies to her “planted pots” (i.e. potted plants) at home. Not really a spoonerism, exactly, but kinda sorta.

    As for malapropisms, my neighbor excels at those. She uses “literately” instead of literally and “supposably” instead of supposedly, as well as other odd things. We live near a large road, part of whose name is Wyndham, and she always calls it Wyndenham. I don’t even bother trying to correct her.

  • Ken

    Great post. You might have titled it “5 Funny Fingers of Speech.”

  • venqax

    So, nothing like an earror to bring you down to Errth.

    How treu.

    Wellerisms?

    “I’m very, very suspicious.”
    “Yes, you are”, I said, “so I’m keeping an eye on you.”

    Paraprosdokian or Tom Swiftly? Either?

  • JStrange

    I love paraprosdokian humour. It is very British humour-like.

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