Public Speaking:
Malaprops

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A malaprop is an absurd misuse of words. It can be from words that sound alike (sadistic and statistic) or from explanations that don't make any sense. You can use these on purpose as a humor technique during your public speaking engagements. Consider some of the classic examples below:

Casey Stengel

  • I want you all to line up in alphabetical order according to your size.
  • I guess I'll have to start from scraps.
  • If people don't want to come to the ballpark, nobody can stop them.
  • It's déjà vu all over again.

Goldwynisms

In the 1940s the movie mogul Sam Goldwyn misused language so much that malaprops became known as Goldwynisms.

  • A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on.
  • I read part of it all the way through.
  • I never liked him and I probably always will.
  • Every Tom, Dick and Harry is named William.
  • For your information, I would like to ask a question.
  • Now, gentlemen, listen slowly.
  • In two words: im-possible!
  • Include me out.

The great comedian Norm Crosby, who is best known for appreciating standing ovulations when he performs, has made a living out of the ingenious misuse of words. In real life though, malaprops are usually uttered by people who don't even realize their fox paws.

A friend of mine who is a fund-raiser for an unnamed, stuffy Washington, D.C., art society, told me of a hilarious incident that took place during a meeting. The humorless director stood at the conference table in an effort to put an out-of-control meeting back on track and said, 'I fear our discussions are tangenital to the issues at hand.' TANGENITAL! My friend looked around at the other attendees who were all fighting back laughter. She had to excuse herself from the meeting to keep from laughing right in the face of the old windbag.

A flexible public speaker who was truly in touch would have:

  1. realized her mistake,
  2. laughed at herself, and
  3. used that unplanned comic relief to get everyone's attention so that she could regain control of the meeting.

Someone really experienced would make the mistake on purpose. I have learned, in my years of writing comedy skits, that many times the mistakes are much funnier than the planned program. Now I plan mistakes when appropriate. To make this more foggy, I'll explain in one sentence. I learned that when I plan something and then I mess up the plan, the plan becomes funnier than the plan I planned to use, so now I plan to mess up the plan so the plan is planned to be funnier than a plan that is not planned to be messed up. Get it? Good, because you need to hear loud and clear what I'm writing here so you bunglestand it.

Malaprops can be used for fun or to grab attention while making a serious point. Take for example Sam Goldwyn's classic, 'A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on.' I don't know if Sam said this one on purpose or not. I wasn't around in the 1940s to ask him. I do know that the message is clear and has stood the test of time. If he had simply said, 'Contracts should be in writing' who would remember?

Use malaprops in your presentation, but make sure the malapropism is obvious, or your audience may think you are not too bright. If you do get caught in an accidental misusage, you MUST acknowledge your blunder. If you don't, you will absolutely lose your audience who will be thinking about the blunder for several minutes after the fact. They will also note that you are trying to be an absolutely perfect robot that couldn't possibly make a mistake. This will turn them off and make communication extremely difficult.

All you have to do to acknowledge the blunder is to refer to a quotation from Mark Twain and turn it on yourself. Say a self-effacing humorous prepared ad-lib:

"f Mark Twain can spell a word in more than one way, I should be able to say a wrong word at the right time."

If you don't like that one, make an ad-lib up on your own. To make effective presentations, you must appear human to those you speak to. Humans make mistakes. That's part of life. As Archie Bunker says, 'Case closed, ipso fatso.'

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