5 Mixed-Up Malapropisms
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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