Malapropism: “Embarrassing” Mistakes

Most English speakers have, at least once, accidentally told a Spanish-speaker they were pregnant.

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Weird Words and Why they Matter

My sophomore year of college, my dad’s work sent him to Spain. As a budding Spanish major, I jumped at the opportunity to tag along. Ten hours of travel and a lot of jet lag later, we landed in Madrid, got a rental car, and drove toward the small town where he would be working. Along the way, we stopped for breakfast. That’s where my trouble began.

I tried to say something like “May I please have one of those delicious-looking chocolate pastries, if you would be so kind as to get one for me.” What came out of my mouth was a series of nervous squeaks.

Meanwhile, my father, in loud English (because talking louder helps people understand you {insert eye-roll}), points and says, “I’ll have one of those, one of those, and a Diet Coke.”

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I was horrified. As soon as we left I said, “Dad, you just reinforced every stereotype about American tourists. You acted like a bumbling buffoon!”

He looked at me and said, “Who got breakfast faster?”

He had a point. I was so concerned about being polite and conjugating the subjunctive verb tense that I botched the whole communication exchange. I was so terrified of malapropism that I didn’t say anything.

The Word

Malapropism is the humorous misuse of a word by confusing it with a similar-sounding word. This delightful term comes from the 1775 play The Rivals, in which a character, Mrs. Malaprop, frequently says things like “the pineapple of perfection.” [i]

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Why it Matters

When you held your scribbles up to your kindergarten teacher and explained they depicted your Mom, Dad, and dog, was it really a masterpiece? Learning a language is like learning any other skill: it takes time and practice. A lot of practice.

Malapropisms are everywhere in second-language learning. Most English speakers have, at least once, accidentally told a Spanish-speaker they were pregnant. The word embarazada is a false-cognate, meaning it looks like the English word “embarrassed,” but it actually means pregnant.

On that first trip to Spain with my father, my Spanish did not improve because I feared  malapropisms too much to practice. Now I know better. When I attend a conversation group, I bumble away. I make plenty of mistakes, but also plenty of progress. The native speakers have never made fun of my silly malapropisms.

For those trying to learn a second (or third, or fourth) language, I encourage you to practice without fear of malapropism. Most native speakers are understanding of beginner mistakes. If you run into one who isn’t, ask them to say the world squirrel 😊 They’ll never laugh at you again.

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[i] Garg, Anu, and Stuti Garg. A Word a Day: A Fomp through Some of the Most Unusual and Intriguing Words in English. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003.