In the creative communications industry, it feels vital to find exactly the right words but, Malcolm White asks, why not use malapropisms as a resource to define a brand’s essence and values?

Close to 30 years ago now, I worked with a senior marketing client who, during heated debates about how his brand’s essence might be articulated, would invariably bring his outstretched hands slowly together in front of his chest and say “I think we need to polarise this.”

I’m not proud to say this now, but my younger self used to find this terribly funny, and I would so keenly anticipate a repeat performance that I would lose all track of the debate that was taking place, biting the inside of my mouth to stop myself laughing out loud when, invariably, exactly the wrong word was chosen again, accompanied by exactly the wrong hand signals. To this day, I’m still not sure what word my client meant to choose, but the hand gestures suggest it was something like ‘synthesise’ or perhaps ‘harmonise’.

Usually, though not in the example of this old client of mine, the reason why an incorrect word is chosen over a correct word is because the incorrect one sounds like the correct one. So, someone talks about ‘transcendental medication’ when they actually mean ‘transcendental meditation’. It’s also what was going on when a famous paediatrician once said in a lecture “you keep newborn babies warm in an incinerator”, when in fact what she meant to say was that “you keep newborn babies warm in an incubator”. Incinerator/incubator is a classic example of what linguists call ‘the bathtub effect’. This is where the word we are trying to remember is like a person submerged in a bath – their head and knees out of the water, with their head further out of the water than their knees. We are more likely to get the beginning of the words right than maybe the end, but quite often not the middle.

Of course, in comedy, there’s a longstanding tradition of substituting an incorrect, though similar-sounding word for a correct one, for humorous effect. Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy fame used to do it all the time, and the late, great, British comedian Ronnie Barker did the same thing in a number of sketches.

In fact, it is from comedy that the phenomenon of choosing the incorrect word gets its ‘official’ definition. The term ‘malapropism’ (and its earlier variant ‘malaprop’) comes from a character named Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals. Mrs Malaprop frequently misspeaks (to comic effect) by using words which don’t have the meaning that she intends but which sound similar to words that do. Sheridan presumably chose her name in humorous reference to the word malapropos, an adjective or adverb meaning ‘inappropriate’ or ‘inappropriately’, derived from the French phrase mal à propos (literally ‘poorly placed’). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of ‘malapropos’ in English is actually from 1630, and the first person known to have used the word ‘malaprop’ in the sense of ‘a speech error’ is none other than Lord Byron, from 1814.

The reason that malapropisms make us laugh is because we usually take everything so seriously. Especially at work, we believe that words matter, and especially in the creative communications industry it feels like it is vital to find exactly the right words, whether that be for a slogan, a headline or an essence. But I‘d like, here, quite seriously, to make a counterproposal about malapropisms and how they can help us in our quest to discover distinctive and ownable language for our brands. In fact, I’d like to make the claim that sometimes these malapropisms are exactly what’s needed – in creative communications and not just in comedy – because they are exactly right in their wrongness.

I was reminded of this a couple of months ago by a lovely campaign which I saw here on the London Underground network. It was for the British heritage rainwear brand called Hunter, established in 1856. On a variety of digital billboards, Hunter’s agency, Studio Private, showed models dancing while wearing the full range of Hunter’s brightly coloured rainwear. Nothing to write home about you might think, until I tell you that, superimposed over the images were three words which completely transformed the campaign in my eyes with their wrongness, and reframed my engagement with the brand: Rain starts play.

If the malapropism ‘Rain starts play’ (for ‘Rains stops play’, of course) can so obviously change a piece of the communication for the better, then maybe we should take malapropisms more seriously, and not just laugh them off. Perhaps malapropisms could and should become a resource for us when we are trying to define a brand’s essence and values. Perhaps this is actually what my client was getting at all those years ago.