From Mrs. Malaprop, a character in Richard Sheridan's play The Rivals (1775), whose comic trait was her ludicrous misuse of words, we get the word malapropism. A malapropism is the striking misuse of a word or phrase that sounds somewhat similar to another word or phrase.
Often a malapropism occurs when a speaker or writer attempts to use a word or idiom that belongs to his passive rather than his active vocabulary.* Malapropism is a particular risk for those who attempt to put on airs, by using what they consider to be "more elevated" language than they would normally use.
These days people are so careless about the use of language, even when they aren't being pretentious, that malapropisms pop up all over the place, even in the work of professional writers.
I am more inclined to overlook an error of this sort when a person who makes no pretense of wielding language professionally commits a malapropism. For example, an internationally known Kansas artist was telling a reporter how relieved he was to have his stolen watercolors returned just a week after they had been taken. The paintings were not deliberately stolen. They just happened to be in the trunk of a car that was stolen.
The artist told a reporter, "I think the people that took these were just opportunists. . . . I have no feelings I want to extract revenge on somebody. I'm not interested in prosecution. I just want them back" (The Lawrence Journal-World 14 Aug. 2002: 5B)
The idiom he wanted, of course, was "to exact revenge." You can see how the error could happen--not just because "exact" and "extract" sound alike, but also because "extract" suggests the idea of getting something from someone. But grammatically it would be impossible to "extract" something "on" someone, since "extract" means to take out or remove, usually with the implication of some force or effort. The word "extract" would call for the preposition "from," not "on." But of course revenge can only be taken "on" someone, not "from" someone.
I am somewhat less forgiving when a professional writer commits a malapropism, simply because published errors of that sort provide unfortunate models that help to propel the degradation of the language.
Bill Ferguson, a nationally syndicated columnist, wrote in a recent opinion piece (The Lawrence Journal-World 14 Aug. 2002: 7B) about the cultural degeneration evidenced by the proliferation of such reality "freak shows" as The Anna Nicole Show, featuring a former Playboy playmate, Anna Nicole Smith. Ferguson wrote, "But the fact that some Americans recognize this trend as part of a gradual dissension into a moral cesspool is encouraging. . . ."
The word "dissension," which derives from "dissent," means disagreement. The word he wanted was "descent," which means a downward movement. He wishes to describe a gradual "descent into a moral cesspool."
Unfortunately, such careless use of language by professional and widely read writers might well be taken as a sign of our culture's descent into borderline illiteracy.