Spoonerism vs malapropism: ways we mix up words

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Ever mixed up words in a sentence or said the wrong word by accident?

English can be a challenging language to speak correctly. Even native speakers regularly make mistakes when speaking and some of these can end up being very funny.

Did you know that there are different terms to describe different types of word-related mistakes?

From spoonerisms and malapropisms to blends and portmanteaus, here’s everything you need to know about the ways we mix up words in English:

Spoonerism

A ‘spoonerism’ is when a speaker accidentally mixes up the initial sounds or letters of two words in a phrase. The result is usually humorous.

Examples of spoonerisms include:

  • ‘blushing crow’ (instead of ‘crushing blow’)
  • ‘hair bug’ (instead of ‘bear hug’)
  • ‘flock of bats’ (instead of ‘block of flats’)
  • ‘by mad’ (instead of ‘my bad’)
  • ‘shake a tower’ (instead of ‘take a shower’)
  • ‘bound sight’ (instead of ‘sound bite’)
  • ‘bowel feast’ (instead of ‘fowl beast’)
  • ‘cop porn’ (instead of ‘popcorn’)

Where does the term spoonerism come from?

William Archibald Spooner was a reverend and professor at Oxford University in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Although he was a well-respected scholar and reputedly a very intelligent man – he regularly mixed up his words.

He spoke very quickly but was often thinking a few seconds faster than his mouth, so the sounds of his words got switched around to create entirely different expressions with some odd meanings.

He was so well known for this type of mistake that it was actually named after him!

For example:

  • When looking to visit a Dean at Oxford University, he asked “Is the bean dizzy?” instead of “Is the Dean busy?”.
  • He also claimed that one of the best ways of getting around town was on his well-boiled icicle (that is, his well-oiled bicycle).
  • He also famously said he was chewing the doors when he really was just doing the chores.

Can you guess what advice he was trying to give his sick friend when he told him he should know his blows? (answer below)

Malapropism

A ‘malapropism’ is when an incorrect word is used in a sentence that sounds like the correct word but means something completely different.

Examples of malapropisms include:

  • Pollen is harsh on the sciences. (sinuses)
  • At times, my job can be quite monogamous. (monotonous)
  • Without proper installation, you’ll feel the cold in the winter. (insulation)
  • We awaited their return with baited breath. (bated)
  • His story doesn’t jive with the evidence. (jibe)

Malapropisms are often heard in the world of politics – when politicians get their words mixed up while speaking in public.

A recent one was when a UK politician proudly declared that his intention was to “make breakfast a success” (Brexit).

Another famous example is former Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley who was known for these types of mistakes in the 1980s.

Some of his best examples include:

  • calling a tandem bike a tantrum bike
  • referring to Alcoholics Unanimous instead of Alcoholics Anonymous

What do you think Richard J. Daley meant when he said: “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder, the policeman is there to preserve disorder.”? (answer below)

Where does the term malapropism come from?

In Richard B. Sheridan’s 18th century comedic play The Rivals, the main character’s aunt, Mrs. Malaprop, runs around saying things that sound almost correct – but are just a little bit wrong.

The kind of mistake came to be known as a malapropism thanks to the popularity of the character’s way of speaking.

Some classic examples from the play are:

  • “Your being Sir Anthony’s son, captain, would itself be a sufficient accommodation” (recommendation).
  • “I have since laid Sir Anthony’s preposition before her” (proposition).

Other ways we play with English words

Blends

One of the easiest ways to get words mixed up is to think of one word while trying to say another. This is how blends end up happening.

These mistakes happen regularly in all languages and are usually easy to notice.

One famous example in pop culture is from the 2004 film Mean Girls, where the main character Cady gets nervous and accidentally creates the word grool.

Portmanteaus

Sometimes, though, these blends are intentional and become official words of their own. These new words are called portmanteaus and are quite common in English.

Don’t believe me?

Well, think about the last time you listened to a podcast (iPod + broadcast), breathed in smog (smoke + fog), on met friends for brunch (breakfast + lunch).

A relatively new blended word is for a type of food from Louisiana that has increased in popularity in recent years, especially around American Thanksgiving.

Do you know which three birds are in a turducken? (answer below)

So, if you’re learning a new language and find yourself making mistakes – remember that even native speakers regularly mix up their words.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll accidentally create a new word too. That would be grool!

Answers:

(1) blow his nose;

(2) “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder, the policeman is there to prevent disorder.”;

(3) a turkey, a duck and a chicken

Federico leads the English team as Senior English Language Expert at Busuu. He was born in Mexico City, raised in the United States, and has lived in Guinea, Liberia, France, The Czech Republic, Lebanon, the USA and the UK working in English education. He is a huge language nerd, but can also be found playing the horn in orchestras around London, or transporting busuu’s office-dog Spike around town.

1 COMMENT

  1. When asked where did her and her friends eat at lunch, her reply,’umm, 4 Boys, something like that’….Five Guys is where they are….I was dying

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