When You Mean to Say One Thing — But End Up Saying Another?

Has this ever happened to you? You’ll be talking, maybe in a bit of a rush, and after saying something you realize it wasn’t what you had meant to say at all. Turns out, you’ve flipped two words! Or maybe, you said a different word entirely from what you had intended! 

People mixing up words is more common than you think. There are broadly two major ways we do so, and those include ‘spoonerisms’ and malapropisms.  

First, a ‘spoonerism’ is when you swap the first sounds or letters of two different words in a phrase. 

Examples of that can be seen in phrases like ‘by mad’ or ‘shake a tower’, when in reality you probably meant to say ‘my bad’, or ‘take a shower’, respectively. 

This word comes from an Oxford professor back in the late 1800s named William Archibald Spooner. He was well-respected and highly intelligent, but he often spoke so quickly that he had the common habit of mixing up the first letters of two words. In fact, he made this mistake so often the term ‘spoonerism’ was named after him. 

Second, a malapropism is when an incorrect but similarly sounding word is used to replace another in a sentence. 

For example, if you ended up saying “colds are hard on the sciences” instead of “colds are hard on the sinuses”, you’ve just experienced a malapropism. Sometimes, it can cause a lot of confusion, like if someone ended up saying “they are totally throwing a tandem” rather than what they had meant to: “they are totally throwing a tantrum”. 

Similarly to the term ‘spoonerism’, the term malapropism also comes from a person who often made that mistake. In an 18th century comedic play the protagonist’s aunt, Mrs. Malaprop, often ran around saying things that sounded almost correct, but were actually just slightly wrong. Due to the popularity of her character and the way she spoke, this action ended up being named a malapropism. 

However, while you might’ve not said these words wrong ways intentionally, there are definitely people who do! Some of these mistakes can be really funny, and as a result, there are even people who intentionally try to use spoonerisms and malapropisms in their speech as a method of humor. Regardless of who someone is or how well they can speak, these flops of the tongue happen to everyone. 

So the next time this happens to you, you can know what it is and know that it’s totally natural. On top of that, you’ve also just unintentionally stumbled across a spark of comedic genius. 

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