Speaking of Which | Are You A Mrs Malaprop?

26 Apr,2013

By Vidya Heble


Are You A Mrs Malaprop? This was the headline of an article in the Reader’s Digest which I came across when very young. It was, as were so many other things courtesy the Digest, my introduction to the Richard Sheridan play The Rivals, featuring the character of the meddlesome woman who kept mixing up long words to comic effect.


Among the famous Malapropisms are “as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile” (meaning to say alligator); “illiterate him from your memory” (obliterate); and “the very pineapple of politeness” (pinnacle). You can check out this link http://www.fun-with-words.com/mala_malapropisms.html for more Malapropisms and other wordy high-jinks. There’s a link on that page to real-world mixed-up words by famous people too, for some lunchtime laughs.


Malapropisms are not confined to theatre and well-known personalities – you may have cracked one yourself at some point. In a world where people seemingly have less time to read and refer, and less patience to look up things, but where pressure to communicate well has not slackened (for which may the gods be praised), it is only too easy to type a word which you think is right, because it sounds like a word you think you read somewhere which sounds like what you want to say… and you get the drift. If you’re lucky you’ll end up coining genuinely funny bloopers which may get the error excused on sheer grounds of hilarity. But more often than not, mixed-up words are just plain wrong. They sound clunky, they don’t make sense, and what is worst, they sound like they are correct, and hence get propagated.


I came across one recently, referring to a movie: “It doesn’t shirk from portraying the grey, the black and the complex.” You don’t shirk from something, you shirk work, or a responsibility. The word this writer wanted was “shrink”. I don’t shrink from stating the facts, and you should not shrink from consulting a dictionary. It’s a duty many of us shirk.


Another one I’ve seen in reports referring to large crowds is “hoard” of people. Unless the reports are about a sort of giant human-accumulator, the word for a large number of people really is “horde”. A hoard is a store or a stash, of foodgrains or black money, for example. It is also a verb which means “to store, often in secret or obsessively”.


Another odd word substitution I’ve seen is the use of “delves” instead of “dwells”, as in to say someone “dwells on a topic”. You delve into a subject but you dwell on it. I can’t think of any easy way to remember the difference (it’s not even a confusion I would have thought possible, but inventiveness has no bounds) so I can only say, with tiresome repetitiveness, “consult the dictionary”.


A few other entries in my ‘Common Confusions’ list:

Evoke – produce a result from another party; eg, evoke sympathy from the reader.

Evince – show a result in yourself; eg, evince interest in the matter.


Disinterested – neutral

Uninterested – actively not bothered


Amoral – not concerned with right or wrong

Immoral – not following accepted moral standards


Born – having started life

Borne – carried


Flounder – to move clumsily; to have difficulty doing something

Founder – to fail


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One response to “Speaking of Which | Are You A Mrs Malaprop?”

  1. Suguna Swamy says:

    Good to see that I’m not the only one who laments the disappearance of correct English writing (and speech). Whenever I spot errors I feel like a pedant. I look around and find there is nobody I can talk to about them. Who knows any better? Who cares?

    The other day a well known magazine had Foreword spelt Foreward, in capitalized 32 pt . The big newspapers and advertising agencies are often shockingly ignorant too. How else can one explain bloopers of the kind Ms Heble describes, in front page headlines?

    It’s not as if these people are fluent in any Indian language either. They shouldn’t be writing anything at all.

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