“Squirmish”: Malaprop and More

Malaprop is defined as the unintentional misuse of a word by confusion with one of similar sound, esp when creating a ridiculous effect, as in I am not under the affluence of alcohol.


The term comes from the  play The Rivals,  (1775) by Richard Sheridan. He created a comic character named Mrs. Malaprop who would be linguistically ridiculous:

  • ….she might reprehend the true meaning of what she is saying.” (comprehend)
  • “I have since laid Sir Anthony’s preposition before her;” (proposition)

In the classroom, I often ran into student malaprops:

  • Leif Erikson discovered North America while cursing about the Atlantic. (cruising)
  • The Greek Ironic columns are on that building. (Ionic)

The latest malaprop that has caught the public’s attention comes from the conservative pundit Sarah Palin. She has recently declared,

“And you quit footing the bill for these nations who are oil-rich, we’re paying for some of their squirmishes that have been going on for centuries.”

The NYTimes analyzed her use of the term “squirmish”  (not the first time) as a combination of “squirm” and “skirmish”.  In 2011, Jon Stewart provided a definition on The Daily Show:

Jon Stewart: “Squirmish, huh? Well, that’s either some sophisticated foreign policy analysis or what happens when worms get into a fight.”

Squirmish,…it’s more than a malaprop…it is an entirely new word. And given that this is an election year,  the word “squirmish” will be heard again.

The English language continues to revolve.


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