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shameless pleading

Malaprops and mondegreens


Dear WD: I enjoyed reading your article on the phrase “for all intensive purposes.” Since this is a mondegreen, is it also a malaprop? If not, what are the differences? — Warren Donowho.

Chances are good that anyone who hasn’t been reading this column religiously (shame on you!) is a bit confused by your question, so allow me to recap the story thus far as briefly as possible. A reader wrote in to ask whether a common phrase was, in fact, “for all intensive purposes.” It wasn’t, of course — the proper phrase is “for all intents and purposes.” This brought up the subject of “mondegreens,” or amusing mishearings of popular phrases and especially song lyrics. The word “mondegreen” is itself a mondegreen, coined by writer Sylvia Wright upon her mishearing of the poem stanza “They hae slay the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green” as “and Lady Mondegreen.”

“Malapropisms” are quite a different kettle of fish. Malapropisms take their name from Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Sheridan’s classic 1775 play “The Rivals.” Mrs. Malaprop’s name is derived from the French for “inappropriate” (mal a propos), and nearly every utterance she makes in the course of the play bears out that legacy. In her affected attempts to sound refined and cultured by using “sophisticated words” she doesn’t understand, Mrs. Malaprop invariably mangles them — a reference to “allegories” on the banks of the Nile River being a tame example.

Malapropisms are far from extinct, as anyone who watches television knows, and if I had a dime for every blow-dried twit who I’ve heard solemnly explain that the study of word origins is called “entomology,” I’d be writing this column from the Riviera. I would say, however, that “for all intensive purposes” is not a malapropism, since the reader who sent it in was not trying to be pretentious in using the phrase. Ultimately, it’s all a question of attitude.


1 comment to Malaprops and mondegreens

  • Philip M. Sherman, PhD

    I am especially interested in these quirky expressions, noting that they can lead to misunderstandings. My reason is that is that I am writing a book on miscommunication, which I call “inexactitude” in the book. My third chapter is termed, “Problems with the [written] language, and I discuss malapropisms, spoonerisms, and mondegreens. Great fun! I hope to hear from you.


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