It sounds like a sequel to Bedknobs & Broomsticks, but malaprops and mondegreens are our stock in trade at Word Nerd, so I thought I’d talk about what they are and how they differ and how you can have fun with them.
A malaprop is a word mistakenly used in place of one that sounds similar but means something entirely different. When done deliberately for comic effect, such as using a word that means the opposite of what was intended, it can be funny and make a point. The name comes from a character named Mrs. Malaprop in the play The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan; of course, “malaprop” derives from the French mal apropos: mal, badly + à propos, to the purpose. Mal apropos means inappropriate or wrong. In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, the character Dogberry makes the same sort of errors (“we have comprehended two auspicious persons”), and some people refer to these words as dogberrys. TV’s Archie Bunker frequently used malaprops, and ’60s comedian Norm Crosby‘s entire career was built upon the device.
Mondegreens are misheard words, usually in song lyrics. A classic example is the misheard lyric from “Purple Haze,” “‘scuse me while I kiss this guy.” The word mondegreen comes from a famously misheard song; in 1954, writer Sylvia Wright described how she had, as a child thought the lyrics of The Bonny Earl of Murray (a Scottish ballad) were “Ye highlands and ye lowlands / Oh where hae you been? / Thou hae slay the Earl of Murray / And Lady Mondegreen. Years later, she discovered that the actual lyric was “slay the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green.”
The difference between a malaprop and a mondegreen is that a malaprop is saying the wrong word while a mondegreen is hearing the wrong word. A common example of both is “for all intensive purposes;” the expression is actually “for all intents and purposes.” Somebody misheard this and later used it, and others picked it up and passed it along.