Why are Malapropisms Funny?

A long time ago, I had a boss with an incredible knack for malapropriating.

“Let’s touch basis”, instead of ‘touch base’.

“We’ll play it by hear”, instead of ‘by ear’.

And on and on. Yes, English was his first and only language.

It was uncanny because if he had absolutely zero knowledge of the correct idiom, you’d expect a fifty-fifty shot at getting it right. But he batted darn-near a thousand when it came to getting it wrong. I’m still mystified to this day.

I’m also trying to figure out why it’s so funny when people use words incorrectly like this.

Humor is a tricky thing to pin down. Arthur Koestler does a commendable job in his book, The Act of Creation, where he discusses what causes the moment of laughter in a joke.

He describes two separate ‘matrices of thought’ that intersect suddenly and unexpectedly. That’s the punchline moment of a purposefully designed joke. But what creates the humor in the accidental malapropism?

Perhaps it’s the same structure. In this case, the two matrices are less about the content than the context, or perhaps the contrasting social signals.

Idioms are clever. People who use them subtly signal a kind of quick-wittedness, folk wisdom, broad vocabulary, and deftness with language. It is a very grown-up thing to use idioms, as evidenced by how delightfully adorable we find it when kids do.

Unknowingly mispronouncing or misusing a word is just the opposite. It signals cluelessness, naiveté, a small vocabulary, and clumsiness with language. It is a childish thing.

When a serious adult seriously misuses and idiom in a serious soliloquy, these two matrices collide. The fact that the offender is unaware that two polar opposite social signals have collided adds to the tragic humor.

It’s similar to moments when an intense speech is interrupted by someone telling the speaker, “You have a bit of mustard on your chin.”

The unexpected intersection of these planes of reality – dignified, poignant, serious, inspirational, or clever; mundane, domestic, childish, trivial – creates a moment of delight.

Of course the unexpected is not always delightful. Sometimes it’s terrifying. I won’t venture into what separates funny from startling, but I suspect it has to do with the potential risks to the observer.