Not-quite-homophonic errors

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Mon Dec 9 16:55:08 UTC 2002

jim landau wrote:
 >In a message dated 12/9/02 7:18:50 AM Eastern Standard Time,
 >mailinglists at LOGOPHILIA.COM writes:

  >> Is there an official name for the type of verbal error where a
  >> person substitutes a nearly homophonic word for the correct word,
  >>  such as a person writing "eminent" when they mean "imminent"?

 >If the result is amusing, it is called a "malaprop" or

there are two sorts of phenomena here, both involving substitution of
one word for another, based on phonological similarity (and usually
semantic similarity as well).  in one, the substitution is "on-line"
and unintended, something the speaker/writer would recognize as a
mistake if it was pointed out; these are the "malapropisms" of fay and
cutler ("Malapropisms and the structure of the mental lexicon",
Linguistic Inquiry 1977).  in the other, the speaker/writer intends to
use the word produced, but it's a mistake from the point of view of
the surrounding community; these are the errors of the original
mrs. malapop, which i've called "classical malapropisms" ("Classical
malapropisms", Language Sciences 1979).  it's not always easy to tell
which thing you're confronted with, of course, though fay/cutler
malapropisms are often self-corrected (eve clark at stanford
linguistics faculty meeting, 11/12/02: "It's been very widely
decimated... disseminated..."; me in conversation the very same day:
"Planet Auto ReLAY Shop...  RePAIR Shop").

both types, but especially classical malapropisms, can serve as
sources of linguistic change.

arnold (zwicky at

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