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Apr 06

Secret Comedy Writing Technique – Malapropisms

In this next installment in my on-going mini series Secret Comedy Writing Techniques I’m going to cover Malapropisms and provide Malapropism examples. A malapropism is the incorrect use of a word by substituting a similar-sounding word with different meaning, more often than not, with comic effect.

A malapropism is an example of an English writing technique, using long complicated words for comic effect. Essentially, the word that gets used means something different from the word the speaker or writer intended to use.

The word used sounds like the word that was apparently meant or intended. Malapropism examples; using a word like “obtuse” (wide or dull) instead of “acute” (narrow or sharp) is not a malapropism; using “obtuse” (stupid or slow-witted) when one means “abstruse” (esoteric or difficult to understand) would be.


The word used has a recognized meaning in the speaker’s or writer’s language. Simply making up a word, or adding a redundant or ungrammatical prefix (“irregardless” instead of “regardless”) or a suffix (“subliminible” instead of “subliminal”) to an existing word, is not a malapropism.

Quick Bit of History

The term Malapropism takes its name from the post-Restoration comedy The Rivals written in the 1700s by the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. The character Mrs. Malaprop always got confused with her use of English. A Malapropism example of this character doing this would be: “He’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile” (Allegory here is used instead of alligator).

The word originates from the French term mal à propos (wrong on purpose) which is believed to have entered the English language around 1660 the year the English throne was Restored. As you can see malapropisms in comedy have been used for centuries.

Malapropisms: Some Examples

Some further malapropisms examples are “he had to use a fire distinguisher” and “Dad says the monster is just a pigment of my imagination”. Here’s a link to a website that features more Malapropisms: Fun with words.

If you have a facility with words then go ahead and use this technique. I can imagine it working if you did a speech as a corporate impostor. Essentially a humorous speaker poses as an international dignitary or a visiting expert.

Slowly but surely the audience realises that the speaker is an impostor as the speech becomes more outrageous or absurd generating laughter. It works brilliantly well with the English character comic Count Arthur Strong who I’ve seen twice and he is superb at what he does. Here’s an 8m 13sec video clip of the Count doing what he does best.

Malapropism examples can also be found in baseball, check out these Malapropisms in Baseball, courtesy of Yogi Berra which are now affectionately known as Yogiisms: “it ain’t over ’til it’s over”, “it’s deja vu all over again” and 2I usually take a two hour nap from one to four.”

Like I’ve said before, you don’t need this technique to make you funny, but it can help you understand your innate funniness or allow you to tweak a speech. Take a look at Top Comedy Secrets, which has a guide that can help you harness your humour.

Malapropisms is not a technique that would work for me. But if you can make it work for you, then go for it!!

Addendum

Following on from a comment from one of my regular readers and fellow blogger, Nick R Thomas, I’d like to add two other proponants of the Malapropism. The first is Britain’s own comedienne, Hylda Baker who played a character called Nellie Pledge in the sitcom “Nearest and Dearest”. Don’t worry if you’re reading this outside of the U.K. and you’ve never heard of her or the sitcom because… neither have I.

Then there’s America’s own Norm Crosby who worked the Borscht Belt before appearing in Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in, which would have featured lots of malapropism examples. Most recently he did voice work in the Adam Sandler movie “Eight Crazy Nights”. Here’s an ad he did for a U.S. chain of seafood restaurants called Red Lobster, in 1987.

It’s a 30 second clip, and probably not the best example of the man’s work, but you get to hear how he mangles worms: Norm Crosby Comedy Malaprop


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4 comments

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  1. Nick R Thomas

    Really glad you mentioned Count Arthur Strong, Jason. I’ve listened to his radio shows and CDs over and over again and he has a particular relevance to speakers’ blogs like ours because so many of the plots involve his disastrous public speaking appearances. He’s a new comic who seems to appeal across the board, from the young audiences at comedy clubs and the Brighton Komedia venue where his Radio 4 shows are recorded to the more senior audience members at many of my own engagements where I mention his programmes as the best new comedy show for years and they agree!

    I guess Hylda Baker is Britain’s best-remembered exponent of the Malapropism while there are clips on YouTube of America’s Norm Crosby.

  2. Jason Peck

    Thanks for dropping by Nick. Always appreciate your comments.

    I’ve added an addendum now to include those two comics that you mentioned in your comment. I’ve never heard of Hylda Baker if I’m honest. I’m aware of her work now though. And I know the name Norm Crosby, but wasn’t aware of his work.

    And I agree Count Arthur Strong does do some great work. Although, when you say new comic, how’re you defining new? Steve Delaney (the Count’s creator) has been doing the character since 1997. I guess he’s a new breakthrough comic. I’d love to see a TV show, but I’m not quite sure how it’d work. Let’s hope Delaney has got something in the pipeline.

  3. Nick R Thomas

    Well, new to a six-figure Radio 4 audience, the majority of whom probably won’t have spent as much time in comedy clubs as we have, Jason 😀 (That reminds me of that classic Emo Phillips line where he said how pleased he was that he’d got new underwear for his birthday. ‘Well, new to ME..’)

  4. Jason Peck

    Well, since you put it that way…

    When I did Newsrevue, waaaay back when, I got selected to go on a radio show and do some of the cleaner material (which at the time didn’t amount to much). It was for Newsrevue’s 21st Anniversary.

    The presenter told me that the previous week they’d had Emo Phillips on the show. I couldn’t really emphasize how the experience wouldn’t be the same. Especially as I found that out live on air.

    A new(ish) comic using weak, clean material vs. seasoned pro whose video even I owned? hmmm… the odd’s weren’t stacked in my favour that day. Plus the presenter decided to do a cymbal crash after each punchline… nice.

    The following week they had the whole cast of Newsrevue along so I had people to bounce off. The material was still quite dodgy for radio, but at least there was more material for two or three-handers, more than monologues. There was virtually zero solo stuff for me the day I went.

    The lesson would surely be to create strong, clean comedy material in case of such an event? Even if it is for a sketch show renouned for pushing the envelope of taste. But if you create killer material that’s clean, no one would know or care if they’re too busy laughing. Look at Jerry Seinfeld.

    Then once you have that core material you can add in expletives or create material that specifically goes for taboo topics which you can be used in places like comedy clubs. But there should be a bank of killer clean material because you just never know.

    That’s certainly the way I operate nowadays, especially having done charity gigs and corporate work. Even though they sometimes say, “you can go for it” I never do because someone’s bound to be upset in that marketplace.

    I’ve spoken to loads of company event organisers about this and virtually all of them have said they get annoyed when the perfromer gets crude and “goes off message” as they call it.

    So it seems like there’s only one answer to getting repeat work with those types of companies…

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