What is a malapropism?

Posted on 15 April 2015 by Emily Stella

I love this topic, mainly because I love the word malapropism. Who wouldn’t want to drop malapropism into their everyday conversation?

So what is it? A malapropism is when you use an incorrect word that is similar in sound to what you intended. When you make a sentence with a malapropism, it is nonsense.

You have to preserve during tough economic conditions. (persevere not preserve)

The word malapropism comes from the French mal à propos, which means inappropriate. The term was coined in the 1775 comedy The Rivals when the character Mrs. Malaprop would consistently confuse her words.

George W. Bush is the king of malapropisms. Here are a few of his best:

A tax cut is really one of the anecdotes to coming out of an economic illness. (antidote, not anecdote)

I am a person who recognises the fallacy of humans. (fallibility, not fallacy)

I want to remind you all that in order to fight and win the war, it requires an expenditure of money that is commiserate with keeping a promise to our troops to make sure that they’re well paid, well trained and well equipped. (commensurate, not commiserate)

Note: these are direct quotes from Dubya and we take no responsibility for their grammatical inaccuracies!

And here are a few examples I often see in business writing:

For all intensive purposes

I hear this one the most. The actual phrase is for all intents and purposes, which means in every practical sense.

For all intents and purposes, James was the best candidate for the job.


Do diligence

You often hear of lawyers and consultants conducting due diligence. That’s right, due diligence, not do diligence. Due diligence is the investigation of a person or company, usually in relation to a commercial transaction.

Our due diligence revealed significant problems with the target company.


Could of/should of/would of

The correct word is have not of.

I could have been an astronaut if I weren’t an accountant.

I should have left my job when I had the opportunity.


And some funnies…


Not so long ago, I visited a website that had the following error message:

We are currently undergoing maintenance, and apologies for any incontinence. Please try again later.


You may also notice that they’ve written apologies instead of apologise. Altogether, a bit of a disaster.

A new leash on life

The saying is a new lease on life, not leash. If you have a new lease on life you are happy or healthy after a period of illness or sadness. A leash is a chain or lead, usually for a dog.

Damp squid

The correct saying is damp squib, not damp squid.

Damp squib means something that fails to meet expectations – an anti-climax or a disappointment.

A squib is a form of firework that provides a mild explosion. Clearly, fireworks work best when dry, so a damp squib is a disappointment.

A squid is a fast-swimming mollusc.


It’s specifically, not pacifically!

To be specific is to clearly define something. To be pacific means to act calmly.

If you’re not totally sure you’re using the correct word, pick up a dictionary or use the internet to check. You could save yourself an embarrassing mistake!