Malaphors: “It’s as easy as falling off a piece of cake”

July 16, 2019 by Alison Tunley

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At school I remember rather tedious lessons learning the distinction between a metaphor and a simile. How much more fun it would have been to devote some time to exploring the wonderful world of mixed up metaphors. So I was delighted to stumble across an article by Oxford Dictionaries on the subject of the malaphor with the quasi self-explanatory title “What is a malaphor? It’s not rocket surgery!”.

The word malaphor itself is a blend of malapropism meaning the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one (often with an amusing effect) and metaphor, a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. Oxford Dictionaries are monitoring usage of the term to determine whether it warrants an official dictionary entry. Meanwhile we can only delight in the genius of whatever neurolinguistic process manages to combine “Don’t burn your bridges” with “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” to produce the stupendous “We’ll burn that bridge when we come to it”.

Malaphors: “It’s as easy as falling off a piece of cake”

Allegedly the word malaphor has been in circulation since the 1970s, when it was coined by Lawrence Harrison in an article in the Washington Post. Author David Hatfield has written a book on the subject entitled “He smokes like a fish and other malaphors”. Hatfield has been collecting malaphors for over thirty years and he hosts a wonderful malaphor repository (see sources) where readers can contribute their own blended idiom discoveries.

I warn you now, if you have a project deadline looming, visiting has the potential to wreak havoc. It is an endlessly entertaining rabbit hole for anyone who takes delight in linguistic mix-ups. Hatfield posts regular entries including speculation about the original phrases which may have inspired each one. He keeps an eagle eye on news and current affairs for slips of the tongue that he can catalogue for his readers’ delight. Recent favourites of mine include “What planet are you living under” and “It tickled my fancy bone” and “They’re walking on tenterhooks”.

Master word magician Gyles Brandreth also has an admirable malaphor collection in his book on Word Play:

I can read him like the back of my book.
He’s burning the midnight oil from both ends.
The sacred cows have come home to roost with a vengeance.

My own fascination with the concept of the mixed-up metaphor may date back to my childhood when my mother coined the phrase “Don’t knock the rock” – a cross between “Don’t knock it (until you’ve tried it)” and “Don’t rock the boat”. Knowing my mother’s fascination with musicals, this may have been subconsciously inspired by the 1950s musical film of the same name featuring Bill Haley & His Comets. At any rate, this wonderful saying has now become common family parlance on any occasion when the speaker needs to convey a desire to avoid upsetting the applecart.



Gyles Brandreth, Word Play: A Cornucopia of Puns, Anagrams and Other Curiosities of the English Language. Coronet, 2015

David Hatfield’s malaphors website

Richard Lederer, Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon the English Language. Wyrick and Company, 1987

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