Malaprop Characters

Introduction to Character Type | List of Plays | Up One Level

Introduction to Character Type

The "Malaprop" is an infrequent but important character type within this collection of plays. The figures that fall into this group are characterized by their consistent misuse of vocabulary: they unintentionally select a word that has a similar sound or root to their word of choice, but that completely changes the meaning of their statement, rendering it senseless and comical. A prior instance of this character type (Mrs. Slipslop) occurred in Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews (1742); subsequently, the type was reused and reinterpreted by several eighteenth-century playwrights to produce a comic effect in a dramatic production. The term "malapropism" is named after Mrs. Malaprop, the character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals (1775) who frequently makes this error.

The first dramatic example of a "malaprop" character is that of Termagant, a female servant character in Murphy's The Upholsterer (1758), who takes pride in being consulted about the meanings of words:

(Term.) Termagant , says she,--- What's the sigrification of such a word---and I always told her---I told her the importation of all my words, though I could not help laughing, Miss Harriet , to see so fine a lady such a downright ignoranimus (Murphy 16) .

Termagant's use of "sigrification", "importation" and "ignoranimus" convey the approximate meaning of her speech; however, a comic effect is produced by the irony of her statement and by her non-standard vocabulary. Mrs. Malaprop, a successor to Termagant, makes similar mistakes, but the divergence of the malapropisms from her meaning are even more extreme, as demonstrated in this love-letter:

"As my motive is interested, you may be assured my love shall never be miscellaneous ." Very well. " Female punctuation forbids me to say more; yet let me add, that it will give me joy infallible to find Sir Lucius worthy the last criterion of my affections.--- Yours, while meretricious .--- Delia .” (Sheridan 34, my italics).

Like Termagant, Mrs. Malaprop prides herself on her appropriate use of words and goes so far as to explain what should be the proper content of a young girl's education: "a little ingenuity and artifice" at a boarding school, so that she may not "mis-spell, and mis-pronounce words so shamefully as girls usually do; and likewise that she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying" (Sheridan 13, my italics). Mrs. Malaprop's derision of traditional learning ("Greek, or Hebrew, or Algebra, or Simony, or Fluxions, or Paradoxes" (Sheridan 13)) suggests that she herself has not been well-educated, but her wide (if misapplied) vocabulary (cf. female novelist in The Box-Lobby Challenge) indicates that she is at least well-read. The latter, coupled with the fact that she is engaged in an epistolary and anonymous love affair, hints that she is one of the much-discussed female victims of the perils of novel-reading.

The final "malaprop" character is a man, who, like Mrs. Malaprop, has not been educated in a systematic course of study. Captain Le Brush, of Reed's The Register Office (1761), is a class-crossing character whose university education was obtained as he served as a valet to a nobleman. His exposure to literature and the classics have had an effect on his vocabulary, but his scanty education has not provided him with the real meanings of the words he uses:

Capt. Then serously as a Friend, I would dissuade you to look out damn'd sharp, or upon my Soul you'll catch a Tartar! For I have not met with any Body, that was fit to hold the Candle to me in Poetry, for a long Serus of Time---But, Sir, as I am in haste, we had better refer the Dispute at present---any other Time I am at your Service for a Confab of a few Hours---I shall run thro' my Business with as brief Prolixity as possible (Reed 24).

By including these "malaprop" characters, the playwrights obtain an easy laugh from the audience; however, their presence encodes a more serious message about the need for rigorous, standardized forms of education, particularly for women and for lower-class people.

Works Cited:

Murphy, Arthur. The Upholsterer. Glasgow: 1758. Literature Online. 12 August 2008.

Reed, Joseph. The Register Office. London: T. Davies, 1761. Literature Online. 12 August 2008.

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley. The Rivals. London: John Wilkie, 1775. Literature Online. 12 August 2008.

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List of Plays

The Upholsterer (Murphy)

The Register Office (Reed)

The Rivals (R.B. Sheridan)

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©2008 Arden Hegele