The word is malapropism: the unintentional use of an incorrect word, often ridiculously, and usually confusing words that sound similar. For example, The company lost money this physical year instead of the correct term, fiscal year.
The book I am currently writing is titled, The Best Little Dictionary of Confused Words and Malapropisms. With any luck at all, it will be out at the end of 2016 and will contain all those commonly confused words (affect/effect, soul/sole, lose/loose, etc. ) as well as common malapropisms, some of which are phrases.
The word malapropism (mal being the prefix that means “bad” or “wrong”) comes from a character named Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals. Mrs. Malaprop frequently uses words that don’t have the meaning that she intends, but sound similar to words that do. Sheridan chose her name in reference to the word malapropos, derived from the French phrase mal à propos (“poorly placed”).
Here are just a few common malapropisms:
- I am on tender hooks – Should actually be on tenterhooks. A tenter is the frame thaat cloth is stretched out on when it is being made. The tenterhooks are the hooks or bent nails that hold the cloth. The idiom means to be held in suspense.
- I am not at your beckon call – Should actually be beck and call. The difference between beckon and beck appears to be simply the part of speech. Beckon is a verb (to signal someone to come to you). Beck is the gesture you use to summon someone. In the idiom, beck and call are both nouns.
- He is the spitting image of his sister – Should be spit and image. Again, it might be a matter of part of speech. Spitting is an adjective. Spit is a noun. But I don’t know what spit has to do with this idiom anyway!
- The comedian was self-depreciating – No. The comedian was self-deprecating, which means the comedian made jokes about himself or herself. To depreciate is to lose value over time, like computer equipment.
- For all intensive purposes, we are already married – Should be intents and purposes. An intent is the same as an intention or purpose. Intensive means having a high degree of intensity.
- I love to read, pacifically romance novels – Has nothing to do with oceans. It should, of course, be specifically.
- Chester Drawers does not live in your bedroom and hold your underwear – it is a chest of drawers, or a bureau.
- When you blame someone for something, there are no goats escaping – it is scapegoat, not escape goat.
- Although it feels like a pain when you are really hungry, the term is hunger pangs, not hunger pains.
- If a dog is walking behind you, you might get nipped in the butt. However, if you stop something in time, you have nipped it in the bud, or beginning stages.
- Yes, there are children and teenagers in Asia, but mercy killing is called euthanasia, not youth in Asia.
- Survival of the fittest may make this a dog-eat-dog world – it isn’t however, a doggy dog world.
The Best Little Dictionary of Confused Words and Malapropisms will have these and many more malapropisms – as well as tons of confused words. Watch for it — later this year.