Accelerate the positive: Malapropisms and the love of language

I do love how our brains work when it comes to language, and malapropisms are one of the best examples.

Today, I was listening to a podcast conversation between Tony Wrighton – the host of the show, and a specialist in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) ‒ and Rhiannon Lambert, the ‘singing nutritionist’, who combines professional singing with being a professional nutrition and wellbeing coach. (One of the many podcasts I love…read more here!)

There’s no questioning their credentials, and the conversation on diet and nutrition was interesting (although not long enough, I personally feel, to really delve deep into the conflicting information that exists surrounding ‘clean eating’, low/high fat, low/high carb, gluten-free etc), but that wasn’t the issue.

In fact, the thing I noticed most was that Lambert had a particular quirk when speaking: numerous times she would say a word, but clearly meant to say another similar-sounding or similar-meaning word.

For example, she said:

  • ‘Spiralise out of control’ instead of ‘spiral’ (particularly apt given the subject matter – spiralising is a way of making courgettes into low-carb, spaghetti-style noodles)
  • ‘Emphasise’ instead of ’empathise’
  • ‘Individualistic’ instead of ‘individual’

It may sound like I’m being petty and mean, but I’m honestly not. Loads of people make these kind of tiny errors, including me of course – they’re like little audio typos.

I just find it genuinely intriguing, not to mention quite cute, that far from losing her point in the incorrect words – which were probably due to her talking quickly or being nervous about being interviewed for a podcast ‒ it didn’t alter my understanding of what she said one bit.

On the surface of it, someone saying emphasise instead of empathise should render the sentence fairly meaningless. But it doesn’t, because your brain quickly jumps in and rearranges the jumble – suggesting to you what the correct word might be – almost instantly. You can almost feel it happening!

In the same way as we don’t have to see all the letters correctly inside a word to know what it’s probably trying to say – such as, say, cgonrtaluatoins ‒ the brain doesn’t seem to need the right word in this instance to know what you really mean.

Indeed, the ‘correct’ word for this phenomenon, malapropism, has been recognised for centuries, most notably with Shakespeare’s character Dogberry, in the 1598 play Much Ado About Nothing, who constantly spoke in malapropisms to comedic effect.

A cursory Google informs me that the word malapropism itself is said to come from even earlier, after a character named Mrs. Malaprop in the 1775 play The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

Unsurprisingly, as with many words in English, the word comes from a French phrase, mal à propos, which basically translates as ‘in the wrong place’.

But despite using the wrong word, the brain simply picks it up, figures out – through similar sound or meaning – what was actually meant, and enables you to understand it anyway.

Love that! 🙂



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