December 8, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The New Mrs. Malaprop

By |2023-04-12T05:51:40+02:00April 6th, 2023|"Notebook"|
Penelope Keith as Mrs. Malaprop.

a href="">“And he will avail.” In this sentence about the outcome of a plot, the writer confused “avail” with “prevail.”

The Upper Midwest, according to the New York Times is “buffeted from sea-level rise.” Perhaps just a typo, but someone failed to see it was exactly the opposite of “buffered.”

“Not everyone has the stomach to trawl through the dirge that most academics confuse for good writing…” There is irony in the use of the word “dirge” instead of “sludge” or “dreck” in a sentence about “good writing.”

“The now cozy entryway features a mismatch of the couple’s collection.” While a “mishmash” seems homey, a “mismatch” sounds disturbing.

While a “mishmash” seems homey, a “mismatch” sounds disturbing.

And finally, in the past few weeks, I have heard “mitigate against” instead of “militate against” too many times to record it.

I have been meaning to write about this kind of error, which seems to have proliferated in recent years. Several things held me back. One is how easily I forget examples or fail to write them down when I find such errors. Another is that for a long time, I haven’t been able to remember what they are called.

But now I write because the examples above appeared in a two-day burst and I managed to reach a writing instrument in time. And then a friend reminded me what such errors are called.

The technical term for mixing up two similar sounding words is “malapropism,” inspired by Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s eighteenth century play The Rivals. Mrs. Malaprop’s name was based on the French word for something awkward or out of place, malapropos.

Mrs. Malaprop was a comic figure, who mixed up “reprehend” and “comprehend,” used “preposition” instead of “proposition,” or “pineapple” instead of “pinnacle.” Her errors were not the result of chance or pathology, like spoonerisms which transpose beginning consonants and are named for the real person Archibald Spooner. Instead, Mrs. Malaprop’s desire to seem intelligent and cultured — her pretention — misled her.

Predictive spelling and dictation have given Mrs. Malaprop some new accomplices. They jump to conclusions for us. When (and if) we proofread, we are apt to see what we intended rather than what actually appears on screen or paper. Today’s hasty and largely on-screen readers do the same thing; they go on their assumption rather than what is actually written.

Spell check and editing tools don’t help. About all they can correct is misspelling; the subtleties of meaning are beyond them. The kind of experienced human editor who does notice and correct mistakes in meaning is almost extinct. Younger ones have never known better.

With the arrival of AI, things are probably not going to improve.

Despite technology’s contribution, I think pretention still inspires most malapropisms. The evidence is in widespread pretentious word inflation.

People “curate” their kitchen shelves instead of arranging them. Their “aesthetics” “inform” their choice of sofa or athletic shoes. They “critique” things they don’t like instead of “criticizing.” “Lots,” “several,” or “many” are replaced by “multiple,” despite its specific meaning, parts of a whole or repetitions of a single thing. “Expansive” is the new “large” or “broad.” “Share” is the new “say.”

The desire for originality leads them astray. Many errors seem to come from learning words for the SAT instead of actually reading.

From Buzz Feed to Architectural Digest, writers don’t ditch their undergraduate infatuation with professorial bombast (call it “dirge”), even when writing about athletic shoes or fancy houses.

The desire for originality leads them astray. Many errors seem to come from learning words for the SAT instead of actually reading. That would explain the widespread obliviousness to context and connotations. “Ensue,” for example, seems to have lost its causal implication to become a mere synonym of “follow,” as in “ensuing months.” Writers unaware of its connotation of empty puffery or fraud use “vaunted” to mean “highly praised” or “famous.” “Covet” has been completely severed from the implied sin and theft of its most familiar use in the Ten Commandments. Now it is now used to mean “strongly desired”. If I were a hotel or restaurant owner I would not be pleased to have “vaunted hospitality.” Nor can I “covet” something intangible, such as my friend’s good dancing…

Language is a tool. Whether through pretention or technology, using words poorly is no different from using a hammer, a scissor, or a screwdriver for tasks they are not intended for. They get damaged, don’t work well and may even become dangerous.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."