Malapropism of the month

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You've probably seen this, but just in case not:

As David Fay and Anne Cutler explained long ago ("Malapropisms and the structure of the mental lexicon", Linguistic Inquiry 1977):

Two centuries ago, Sheridan invented the delightful character of Mrs. Malaprop, who had an unfailing ability to use the wrong word to the greatest effect. Since Sheridan, the malapropism has been a standard tool of comic writers, especially useful for indicating inferior intellectual ability of a speaker (as when Archie Bunker says "We need a few laughs to break up the monogamy"). But not all errors involving substitution of one word for another result from ignorance of the correct usage; on the contrary, inadvertent use of the wrong word is a common variety of speech error. In this article we will examine such word substitution errors (which we will call malapropisms, although they do not arise, as Mrs. Malaprop's did, from ignorance); we will show that they reveal some interesting aspects of the structure of the mental dictionary used in producing and understanding speech.

Consider a typical example of a malapropism:

(1) T: If these two vectors are equivalent, then . . .
      E: If these two vectors are equivocal, then . . .

Here the speaker has intended to say equivalent, but has inadvertently substituted for it equivocal. This error illustrates well the three major characteristics of malapropisms. First, the erroneous intrusion is a real word—not the intended word, of course, but not a meaningless string of phonemes either. Second, the target and error seem to be unrelated in meaning. Finally, there is a close relation between the pronunciation of the target and the pronunciation of the error.

Ukraine and Iraq are nouns with the same number of syllables and the same stress pattern, and share /k/ and /r/ sounds, though in different syllable positions. But unrelated in meaning? Both are country names, and …

For what Sigmund Freud had to say about such things, see the first section of these lecture notes.


  1. AntC said,

    May 21, 2022 @ 1:17 am

    Ukraine and Iraq are nouns with the same …

    Hmm. I think they're not sufficiently sound-alike for this to count as malapropism.

    More likely, I suspect some coach before the event had said to Bush: whatever you do, don't say Iraq. So, rabbit-in-the-headlights, he did. (He'd already been stumbling through the speech.)

    His throwaways and head-waggling "(75)" after the gaffe suggest he was already aware it was a heffalump trap.

  2. Viseguy said,

    May 21, 2022 @ 1:18 am

    W's correction is more revealing than his slip. As I hear it:

    "… The result is an absence of checks and balances in Russia, and the (uh) decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq — I mean of the [sic] Ukraine. Heh-heh, Iraq too. Anyway. [laughter] Seventy-five. [louder laughter]"

    The audience seemed to "get" the reference to "seventy-five", but I sure didn't. What am I missing?

  3. martin schwartz said,

    May 21, 2022 @ 1:31 am

    Malapropism hardly; "Freudian slip" (as per many remarks already)
    more on the mark. It is an interesting question
    whether the phonic relationship, i.e. the bisyllabicity shared by Ukraine and Iraq, and the fact that they both have /k/ and /r/, is a significant factor in the gaffe. I think it's not. The two sounds in question occur separated and in very different phonic contexts'(cluster vs. non-cluster, with non-intervention of vowel vs. intervention, long final syllable vs. Ø….
    I believe the motivation is Bush's discomfort at his role of in the invasion of Iraq. Had he said "Iran", that would be a malapropism
    and a slip.
    Martin Schwartz

  4. Scott P. said,

    May 21, 2022 @ 1:38 am

    The audience seemed to "get" the reference to "seventy-five", but I sure didn't. What am I missing?

    It's his age.

  5. maidhc said,

    May 21, 2022 @ 2:30 am

    I agree that it's not really a malapropism, which is generally presented as a source of humour (like the Archie Bunker example). This is not a funny subject. "Freudian slip" is an OK description, but in the back of my mind there's a nagging feeling that there's a better term for it. I have the feeling it's a French phrase. But I can't retrieve it.

    I don't have time to go digging through reference materials right now.


  6. jin defang said,

    May 21, 2022 @ 7:57 am

    For those who love malapropisms, don't miss reading (or re-reading) Lawrence Durrell's Frying the Flag.

  7. Celena said,

    May 21, 2022 @ 9:04 am

    I assumed it was a habit – he'd said "invasion of Iraq" so many times that it came out without him thinking about it. His mouth autocompleted, so to speak.

    I would certainly hope he feels discomfort at his invasion of Iraq, and his "Iraq, too" suggests he feels something about it, but I don't think this was wholly a Freudian slip.

  8. cameron said,

    May 21, 2022 @ 1:14 pm

    is there such a thing as an Adlerian slip? a mistake that betrays ones feelings of inferiority?

  9. CuConnacht said,

    May 21, 2022 @ 1:20 pm

    They are even less sound-alike than AntC says if you call Ukraine "the Ukraine" as Bush apparently does.

  10. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    May 21, 2022 @ 1:33 pm

    I had not thought of the Bush slip as a malapropism. To me, it was similar to talking about my daughter while slipping up and using my sister’s name instead of my daughter’s name.

  11. Philip Anderson said,

    May 21, 2022 @ 4:29 pm

    He was born July 6, 1946, so he is 75 years old and using his age as an explanation.

  12. VVOV said,

    May 21, 2022 @ 6:01 pm

    Not the main issue here, but to my ear he is saying “uh, Ukraine” rather than “the Ukraine”.

    Certainly agree it’s remarkable that he says “Iraq too… anyway…”

  13. Viseguy said,

    May 22, 2022 @ 1:10 pm

    @Scott P., @Philip Anderson:

    Ah. Thanks. Ten-four on the seventy-five.

  14. Andreas Johansson said,

    May 23, 2022 @ 2:11 am

    @Barbara Philips Long

    I didn't use to make that sort of name slip, but after my daughter's birth I not only mix up her and my wifes names, I've somehow managed to more than once substitute the stepson's name for either.

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