Malaphors: Mixed-up Cousins of Mixed Metaphors

by Michael Bedford

Published at 2024-03-05

After writing about mixed metaphors last month, it was brought to my attention that I had peppered that post with malaphors. And, although malaphors and mixed metaphors are closely related, there are some key differences between the two.


Flying Wolves?

Mixed metaphors tend to distort the intended meaning of any given metaphor, such as, “The fighter pilot was a wolf of the sky.” This example probably leaves the reader imagining flying wolves rather than ace fighter pilots, so the writer in this example has distorted the meaning of their construction. A better option could’ve been to use a more appropriate metaphor, calling the fighter pilot a bird of prey, for instance.

To writers who might cry foul, preferring instead to employ the flying wolf metaphor in the above example, consider that, although using metaphors effectively involves an amount of creative or poetic license, writers’ primary concern should be to communicate clearly to their readers, so conjuring up an image of flying wolves in readers’ minds might not be the most effective way to encourage them to imagine an ace fighter pilot.

Unlike mixed metaphors, malaphors, also known as idiom blends, occur when a writer or speaker mixes two well-known idioms or clichés, creating a nonsensical “malaphor.” A couple of my favourite examples are “That train has sailed” and “I’m head-over-heels in debt.”


The Intersection of Malapropism and Metaphor

Interested readers might be wondering at the origins of the “mala-” part of the word “malaphor.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the word “malaphor” is a blend of “malapropism” and “metaphor.”

Malapropisms, like mixed metaphors and malaphors, offer another great source of editorial humour since they are often the result of a speaker or writer trying to sound sophisticated, but not quite pulling it off.

A couple of examples are, “She danced a fine flamingo,” rather than “flamenco,” and Mike Tyson’s famous blunder when pontificating on his retirement from professional boxing, “I might just fade into Bolivian.”


The Dundreary Origins of the Malaphor

The first use of the term “malaphor” is widely attributed to Lawrence Harris in a 1976 article he wrote entitled “Searching for Malaphors.” But, a little digging around on reveals that malaphors went by a different name in the nineteenth century. Referring to Lord Dundreary, a malaphor-afflicted character from Tom Taylor’s 1858 play Our American Cousin, the term “dundrearyism” was part of common usage by 1878, and likely well before.

Indeed, Lord Dundreary is in good company, since true grammar pedants know that the word “malaprop” comes from “Mrs. Malaprop,” a character from Richard Brinsley Harrison’s eighteenth-century play, The Rivals. Dundreary and Malaprop would make a good pair, trying their best to sound sophisticated but not quite hitting the mark…

Mrs. Malaprop: Sir, you are as acerbic as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.

Lord Dundreary: What, those things that look like oranges with wings on them?


Make Your Own Malaphor

Using the list below, readers can blend idioms until the cows come home to roost. Just don’t count your chickens before they cross the road.

…until the cows come home.

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.

Why did the chicken cross the road?

That train has left the station.

That ship has sailed.

We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Don’t burn your bridges.

The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.

There’s a fly in the ointment.

Throw a wrench in the works.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

It’s six of one, half a dozen of the other.

The chickens are coming home to roost.

Don’t accept any wooden nickels.

I’m head-over-heels in love.

I’m up to my eyeballs in debt.


A few of my favourite constructions out of the options above are “The devil you know keeps the doctor away,” “I’m up to my eyeballs in wooden nickels,” and “A bird in the hand is worth two flies in the ointment!”



Michael Bedford is a freelance editor, copywriter, and performer living in Stoney Creek, Ontario. He can be reached at


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