this weekHit or Misnomer

December 19, 2004


The right word (for ‘the right word’)

Don’t bother looking it up in the dictionary. The word aproposism isn’t there yet; I coined it just last year. And, if I may say so, it’s about time someone did. English is full of words that mean “the wrong word” in one sense or another: misnomer, malapropism, solecism, hyperbole, oxymoron, and so on, not to mention related concepts like misunderstanding, misconception, and misapprehension. This must show that English speakers value an apt choice of words and dislike an inappropriate choice. And yet, where is the word in English that refers to a choice of expression that’s just right? There isn’t one. Or wasn’t, until now.

There is, of course, the expression bon mot (“good word” in French), which refers to a clever remark or a witticism. But what if you’re not trying to be clever? What if you simply want to choose the best word for the job? You need to find an aproposism.

You Don’t Say…
The need for this word arose when I was researching some well-known misnomers and malapropisms. I noticed that, amusingly enough, sometimes malapropisms were mistakenly referred to as misnomers, and vice-versa. A misnomer, by the way, is an inappropriate name for something or someone, whereas a malapropism is the (often humorous) misuse of a word due to its similarity in sound to another word. So, for example, you might say that “correctional facility” is a misnomer if you believe behavioral correction does not occur there; similarly, “atom” is a misnomer for a unit of matter that can in fact be subdivided further. But if you say “purposefully” when you mean “purposely” or “disinterested” when you mean “uninterested,” that is a malapropism.

One Web site I looked at referred to the misuse of “healthful” to mean “healthy” as a misnomer, but that’s incorrect. An adjective cannot be a misnomer. The usage in question was a malapropism, as was the use of the term “misnomer” in place of “malapropism”! As long as I’m coining terms, I’ll call this particular blunder a recursive malapropism. Good writers would naturally wish to avoid such mistakes, but how does one refer succinctly to a felicitous word choice? If I want to say, “I’ve chosen the correct word to mean ‘the wrong word,’” what sort of an activity have I thus performed? Or how can I describe the word so chosen? In either case, the correct term can only be aproposism.

Is It Apropos?
Careful readers may wonder why I didn’t use the shorter apropism, i.e., malapropism without the “mal-.” Three reasons: first, “apropism” is etymologically indefensible; second, aproposism is easier to remember because it contains “apropos” (appropriate); and third, aproposism is harder to pronounce—everyone likes a good tongue twister.

The reason “apropism” is etymologically indefensible is that the word “malapropism” itself has a rather dubious pedigree. The term was not derived directly from French, as you might suspect. Instead, it comes from the name of a character—Mrs. Malaprop—in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 comedy The Rivals. Mrs. Malaprop’s lines were peppered with verbal blunders, and the name was supposed to be a joke for those who knew some French—a catchy shortening of “malapropos,” which means “inopportunely.” Malapropos, in turn, is a combination of mal (“bad”) + à (“to”) + propos (“purpose”). All that to say: the pos in aproposism serves to tie the word more directly into its French roots, rather than basing it on a comedic English corruption of a French term.

That said, here’s my official definition:

aproposism (ə ″präp ə ′siz əm), n. [Fr. à propos, to the purpose < L. ad, to + propositus, pp. of proponere, propound + -ism < M.E. -isme < O.Fr. < L. -ismus < Gr. -ismos, nominative suffix]
1. The act of choosing a felicitous word or phrase.
2. A word or phrase so used.

So there you have it. Never again must you wonder about the right word for “the right word.” —Joe Kissell

More Information about Aproposisms…

Sites dealing with malapropisms, misnomers, or both: