A text-only version of this article appeared in my GoodReads blog on August 24, 2010.
In his play The Rivals, Brinsley Sheridan introduces us to Mrs. Malaprop. Mrs. Malaprop thinks that she sounds very educated because she uses some pretty fancy words — but she has no idea what they mean, so she comes across as fairly ignorant. My favorite examples come from Mrs. Malaprop’s speech to Sir Anthony Absolute about her ambitions for her daughter:
“Observe me, Sir Anthony. — I would by no means wish a daughter of mine to be a progeny of learning; I don’t think so much learning becomes a young woman; for instance — I would never let her meddle with Greek, or Hebrew, or Algebra, or Simony, or Fluxions, or Paradoxes, or such inflammatory branches of learning — neither would it be necessary for her to handle any of your mathematical, astronomical, diabolical instruments; — But, Sir Anthony, I would send her, at nine years old, to a boarding-school, in order to learn a little ingenuity and artifice. — Then, Sir, she should have a supercilious knowledge in accounts; — and as she grew up, I would have her instructed in geometry, that she might know something of the contagious countries; — but above all, Sir Anthony, she should be mistress of orthodoxy, that she might not mis-spell, and mis-pronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do; and likewise that she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying. — This, Sir Anthony, is what I would have a woman know; — and I don’t think there is a superstitious article in it.”
An excellent page of Mrs. Malaprop quotes may be found at this link.
As you go through the list of what we now call malapropisms in honor of Sheridan’s comedic character, I’m sure you’ll notice that the main problem comes in with homophones/homonyms.
I got into a big argument recently with an author because he referred to “knocking an arrow” in his manuscript, and I called out his error. He showed me numerous blogs that show people “knocking arrows,” which amused me mightily (I used to be an archer).
I think that knocking an arrow is not a very good use for it. In fact, I would think that too much knocking would render it pretty useless after a while.
In order to aim a bow, you must first nock the arrow.
The dictionary is your friend, and should be the source upon which you rely. If you look up nock, you will find that its origin comes from the Middle English nocke, which means “notch.” The notched end of the arrow is called a nock because it has a notch.
Now, let’s look up knock. Not only do we see no definitions related to archery, but we also see the Old English origin of the word in knoken, meaning “to press.”
I could go on and on about this, because it is an unfortunate problem. I have seen people write “for all intensive purposes” where they mean “for all intents and purposes,” and “taken for granite” when they mean “taken for granted.”
Honestly, as an editor, these sorts of things leap out at me and make me cringe. However, there are worse potential consequences than my disturbance; malapropisms may result in your manuscript being pitched out by an acquisitions editor who, frankly, doesn’t have time to clean up after you.
Watch your homophones/homonyms, folks; you don’t want to be the next Mrs. Malaprop.