Malaprop and Dogberry

Image: Cross Deep, Twickenham. Historic England: “Late C17 or early C18. Good brick wall on road with square gate piers surmounted by stone pineapples and wrought iron gate with overthrow and lamp.”

From Wikipedia:

“An unintentionally incorrect use of similar-sounding words or phrases, resulting in a changed meaning, is a malapropism. If there is a connection in meaning, it may be called an eggcorn. If a person stubbornly continues to mispronounce a word or phrase after being corrected, that person has committed a mumpsimus.

The word “malapropism” (and its earlier variant “malaprop”) comes from a character named “Mrs. Malaprop” in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals. Mrs. Malaprop frequently misspeaks (to comic effect) by using words which do not have the meaning that she intends but which sound similar to words that do. Sheridan presumably chose her name in humorous reference to the word malapropos, an adjective or adverb meaning “inappropriate” or “inappropriately”, derived from the French phrase mal à propos (literally “poorly placed”). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of “malapropos” in English is from 1630, and the first person known to have used the word “malaprop” in the sense of “a speech error” is Lord Byron in 1814.

The synonymous term “Dogberryism” comes from the 1598 Shakespeare play Much Ado About Nothing in which the character Dogberry utters many malapropisms to humorous effect. Though Shakespeare was an earlier writer than Sheridan, “malaprop/malapropism” seems an earlier coinage than “Dogberryism”, which is not attested until 1836.”

Simon Reade, then Artistic Director of the Bristol Old Vic, wrote in The Guardian of 15 May 2004:

“Sheridan revered his parents – so much so that he freely filched from his mother’s unfinished play A Journey to Bath for The Rivals.”

Matt Trueman interviewed Gemma Jones for The Guardian of 31 Oct 2014:

In 2014, the part of Mrs Malaprop was taken at the Arcola Theatre, Dalston, by Gemma Jones, who commented:

“Some of her errors are quite subtle. Some are crude: “The very pineapple of politeness.” She means pinnacle. It’s daft – very entertaining, but bloody difficult to learn. It’s easy to be silly, but you’ve got to be careful. As with the best comedy, you have to play it as if it’s not funny…

…she’s quite conflicted by it. Sir Anthony Absolute, for example, is outraged that she reads and thinks of libraries as dens of iniquity. I imagine Mrs Malaprop sitting up late devouring books in secret. I suspect she’s a bit of a proto-feminist.”

In 1848, a writer for the “North American Review” offered this criticism of Sheridan’s creation:

“Every body laughs at Mrs Malaprop’s mistakes in the use of words, as he would laugh at similar mistakes in an acquaintance, who was exercising his ingenuity instead of exposing his ignorance. They are too felicitously infelicitous to be natural. (Her remarks) are characteristics, not of a mind flippantly stupid, but curiously acute.”.

Quite so. In Georgian culture, the phrase “a pineapple of the finest flavour” was a metaphor for “the most splendid of things”.

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