Anatomy of a malapropism

English is full of troublesome pairs of words – if they look alike and sound alike, and share a common thread of meaning, no wonder we confuse them.

Tony Ding/AP
The words 'flaunt' – as in flaunting a new car – and 'flout,' or expressing disdain for something, are often confused. Here General Motors CEO Mary Barra talks about the 2016 Chevrolet Volt hybrid car at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Let us now praise Mrs. Malaprop. A character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play “The Rivals,” she’s made audiences laugh with her almost-but-not-quite-right word choices for generations. Other playwrights have worked this comic vein – notably Molière, and Shakespeare, whose constable Dogberry, in “Much Ado About Nothing,” was a sort of proto-Barney Fife. But today we call such bungled usages malapropisms.

Reviewing some examples of these the other day, though, I began to have a little sympathy for their namesake – and all the rest of us who occasionally pick the wrong one of a pair of troublesome words. A number of these pairs sound just enough alike and share some common element of meaning to be plausibly confused. 

Take flaunt and flout, for instance. Flaunt means to show (something) off: a new car, for instance. Flout means to show or express disdain for something: regulations that tell you where you can or cannot park that new car, for instance. Their meanings are distinct: One refers to behavior that arguably pushes the line, the other to behavior that is clearly over the line. But the two sound similar. And they share a common thread of brazenness, cheekiness. No wonder people confuse them.

And etymology is not of much help here. Flout has been used transitively (“to flout the law”) since the 1550s. But it’s not clear just whence it derives. “Possibly special use” of a Middle English verb meaning “to play on the flute,” the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, with less than complete conviction. “Compare,” the dictionary continues, “a similar development of sense in Dutch fluiten to play the flute, to mock, deride.” Well, OK, maybe.

And flaunt? Here’s what the OED has to say: “Of unknown origin.” OED allows that the word looks French, but it can suggest no known French word from which it could have come. Early uses of flaunt suggest flags, banners, plumes, etc., waving “gaily or proudly,” the dictionary explains, adding, “Possibly the word may be an onomatopoeia formed with a vague recollection of fly, flout, and vaunt.”

Flounder and founder are another troublesome pair. Both refer to slow failure. The mnemonic is that flounder is what a flounder (fish) does; to founder is what a sinking ship does – it goes to the bottom. Again, the two words sound alike and share a common thread of meaning, even though they’re not synonymous.

Hone is widely, and correctly, used to mean “to sharpen (something),” either literally (a knife) or more metaphorically (skills, a sales pitch). It’s also used, less correctly, as an equivalent of “to home in on, or to converge upon.” The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, accepts this usage. But Steven Pinker, for one, isn’t buying it: In his new book, “The Sense of Style,” he calls it “a malaprop of to home, ‘return home,’ (what homing pigeons do).” Again, there’s an overlap in meaning (“gradually converge on a precise point or edge”) that “conspires with the similar sounds to encourage the malaprop.”

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