In response to a Facebook post of mine in 2017, a friend introduced me to the word malaphor, which refers to a phrase that mixes two (or more) idioms.

My post used the phrase “The devil’s hands make light work.” A couple of other examples that friends gave in comments:

  • The road to hell wasn’t built in a day.
  • When in doubt, do as the Romans do.

Elliott Moreton calls this kind of thing a recombinant idiom, which on the one hand is more accurate (the items in question are often idioms rather than metaphors per se) but on the other hand isn’t as punchy/catchy to my ear. And the word malaphor also calls to (my) mind the word malaprop, which also seems appropriate.

I’ve been using the phrase recombinant idiom in Words & Stuff to refer to a wider range of items:

It turns out that there’s at least one website devoted to malaphors: Their slogan: “It’s the cream of the cake!”

A few of their recent posts:

I had assumed that malaphor was a new word, but that site says “It is believed that the term was first coined by Lawrence Harrison, a government official in the Agency for International Development, in an op-ed piece for the Washington Post in 1976.”

A web search also led me to another list, which includes some that I particularly like, such as “He has a bee in his belfry.”

2 Responses to “Malaphors”

  1. David Hatfield

    Thanks for the shout out! I have also published two collections of malaphors – “He Smokes Like a Fish and Other Malaphors” and “Things Are Not Rosy-Dory: Malaphors from Politicians and Pundits”. Both are available on Amazon. I have been collecting these “word errors” for over 30 years. Catch me also on Facebook (malaphors) and on twitter @DaveMalaphor

  2. Jessica

    Great piece! Here’s one you might like. My family kept a collection of witty remarks my stepfather said at one time or another, called the Sayings of Chairman Max, and one of them was “That guy is obfuscating on thin ice.”


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