5 Mixed-Up Malapropisms

By Mark Nichol

It’s almost impossible to speak or write English without dodging a misnomer or a malapropism at least once in your lifetime. A misnomer (the word is derived from the Latin for “incorrect name”) is forgivable — usually, it’s merely a matter of retaining an obsolete description, as in “pencil lead” for the graphite used in writing instruments, or referring to the United States as a democracy, when it’s technically a federal republic — but a malapropism is a bald sign of carelessness or overreaching for elephants.

Eloquence. I meant eloquence. Sometimes, of course, it’s used for comic effect. (That’s where we get the word malapropism. It comes from malapropos, the Latin for “inappropriate,” entering the English language when playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan used it as the name of a character who, out of ignorance, uttered humorous inanities.)

Here are some examples of malapropisms to avoid:

1. “Her plans didn’t jive with his ambitions.”
Jive means “to deceive”; the writer meant jibe, “to coincide”: “Her plans didn’t jibe with his ambitions.”

2. “Who was the first Englishman to circumvent the globe?”
In one sense, circumvent means “to go around,” so it superficially works here, but the most common meaning is “to evade,” so, unless the Englishman was a fugitive astronaut, circumnavigate is the word the writer is looking for: “Who was the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe?”

3. “In outrage, she responded vehemently to the anti-Semitic epitaphs at the rally.”
An epitaph is a commemorative inscription or comment about a deceased person. The correct word is epithets (an epithet, in this context, is an insult): “In outrage, she responded vehemently to the anti-Semitic epithets at the rally.” (Epithet can also mean a substituting word or phrase such as “the Father of Our Country” or, in biology, a term in a taxonomic name.)

4. “I awaited her arrival with baited breath.”
Baited means “lured” or “teased” (or “attacked,” “harassed,” or “persecuted”). The writer should have written bated (“withheld”): “I awaited her arrival with bated breath.”

5. “I wouldn’t step foot in there if you paid me.”
This substitution of step for set is a minor flaw, but the latter word is the standard idiom: “I wouldn’t set foot in there if you paid me.”

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18 Responses to “5 Mixed-Up Malapropisms”

  • Desiree Fawn

    I LOVE your articles. I can honestly say I’ve learned a ton from your site since coming across it a few months ago — thank you!

    (Oh, and I think that last “jive” should be a “jibe”? Although now I’ve read that paragraph so many times my brain has gone fuzzy.)

  • Trevor

    Hey Mark, great post as always. Just wanted to let you know there is a typo in the first example. In the corrected sentence, “jive” should be “jibe” as you’ve indicated.

  • Stephen

    In example 1 you seem to have repeated the incorrect sentence.

    Many thanks for #4 – I never knew the correct spelling of bated before!

    And the character from the Sheridan play is named Mrs Malaprop, I believe.

  • Charlotte

    One of my boyfriend’s classics is ‘that doesn’t hold any mustard with me’. Love it!

  • Rebecca

    Thanks for the reminder. I think #4 is most popular among writers and readers.

  • JoanL

    Great post!

    A malapropism that seems to be on the rise is the use of “misnomer” when the speaker means “misconception.” I cringe whenever I hear this one.

  • john

    only a snob would ” cringe ” upon hearing someone misusing a word.
    What would such a cringer do in face of a real threat?
    I wouldn’t want to be near him or her in war-time.

  • ApK

    John, follow that person, as he would likely be the only one with a well thought out plan, since they clearly pay attention to details.
    The one’s who let things slide, and grossly and inappropriately overgeneralize are rarely good for more than cannon fodder.

  • Terry A McNeil

    Cases 2 to 4 may be open to debate depending on the writer’s intentions. However using the intentions you set out demonstrates the proper use .

    Are you sure “set foot in” is an idiom. My sense moves it to being better defined as a colloquial term because it makes sense. We all have to put up with splittng hairs from time to time. He he…

    Fashion great words, you are wise. Command the language, you will master great destinies. – T A McNeil, 2011

  • Nan Roberts

    I thought “jive” meant “to boogy” and came from the earlier days of jazz.

  • J Day

    Someone could have baited breath if they had bad breath 😉

  • Mark Nichol

    The jibe error is fixed. (I copied and pasted the incorrect example without correcting the word.)

  • R.D. Allen

    Dude. I should totally write a story about a fugitive astronaut now. 8D

  • Ron

    These are great, Mark. Clean as a bell, and quick as a whistle!

  • mrburkemath

    Robin Williams on “Mork & Mindy”: I’m waiting with worms in my mouth.

    That’s how you might expect an alien trying to learn English to speak.
    Or Robin Williams, for that matter.

  • Nerra

    The first example truly confused me.
    It seems I have always heard the word “jive” used incorrectly. You see, I was under the impression that “jive” held the connotation of the music; that if two thing were to jive, they went together like the parts of the music. However, the meaning of “jive” is not the main reason for my post.

    My main source of confusion is that I have only heard/read the word “jibe” as meaning “an insult”(jibe is an acceptable spelling of gibe, as far as I know). I have never come across “jibe” as meaning “to be in accord”.

    Gibe or jibe: a mocking remark, a comment that is intended to hurt or provoke somebody or to show derision or contempt

    So, after reading your definition of “jive”, I feel that neither word should be used. Nevertheless, I am fairly young and probably ignorant. Still, it seems to me that the use of “jibe” as “to be in accord” is fading from modern usage.

  • venqax

    I like, “It’s no skin off my brow”, and a current TV ad that has a guy talking about, “the white elephant in the room”.

    You also used to hear, “He who laughs last laughs last”, which I think comes from a Looney Tunes cartoon, but would be invoked in serious contexts as if it were a genuine old piece of wisdom that somehow made sense.

  • Roberta B.

    As I’ve commented on a prior article, to jibe is a nautical term – to go with the wind – in other words, to go together or to be in accord. It seems to me it is increasing in modern usage (or it’s intended use commonly replaced by malapropism) is increasing, not fading.

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