Modern Malapropisms

Robert Rubin, Writing for
2-minute read

The Irish-born playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, writing 175 years after Shakespeare, created a memorable mangler of language in his play The Rivals. Her name is Mrs. Malaprop, and she is famous for the phrases She’s as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile, and He is the very pineapple of politeness, among others. Indeed, Mrs. Malaprop, whose name literally means inappropriate, became synonymous with the kind of verbal goof that afterward became known as a malapropism.

We’ve all made such flubs, at one time or another. The particular pleasure that one gets when one discovers a modern malapropism in the wild comes in part from ferreting out the logic that underlies it. This dictionary’s entries attempt to do just that, where it can be deduced, and offer speculation where it can’t. 

bold-faced lie

v: bear-faced lie. Perhaps a lie printed in boldface type, or told boldly. The expression barefaced lie (an undisguised lie) goes back to eighteenth-century England, from which it spread to the American frontier and got mixed up with baldface whiskey (bad whiskey that stung like a bald-faced hornet) and became a bald-faced lie.


Confuses die-hard with expressions such as big-hearted, noble-hearted, etc. Diehards may fight to the end, but their hearts are set on surviving, not dying.

marsh pit

v: mush pit. What began as a slam pit at punk concerts (an area in front of the stage where slam-dancers banged heads) was later called a mash pit and then a mosh pit—the name that stuck. It can indeed resemble a kind of swamp of sweaty, pogo-ing, slam-dancing bodies. The variant makes sense, too, as individuals may feel pounded to mush in the crush.


ROBERT ALDEN RUBIN holds an M.A. in creative writing from Hollins College. He worked as a journalist and a college English instructor at the University of North Carolina and was an editor for Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. His books include Poetry Out Loud and On the Beaten Path: An Appalachian Pilgrimage. He lives near Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife.

Going to Hell in a Hen Basket is available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, IndieBound, or Apple.

This excerpt has been slightly tweaked for publication on QuickandDirtyTips.com.

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