Is there a condition for when you say the wrong words?
July 23, 2013 7:39 AM   Subscribe

A friend often says the wrong (but somewhat related) words when in a conversation. Like just now, she said "I didn't empty the dish drain this morning. I want to see if the other roommates empty it before I get home later today." She meant disk rack. This happens all the time. Is there a name for this condition?

Other examples:

"I bet Heather would like some of these onions."

We do not have a friend Heather. She meant Hilary.

"I think I see a red tent."

We were looking for friends with a red boat (but we were going camping, so it's not completely illogical that tents would be on her mind -- but we were not in any way looking for a red tent).

"Can you put the bowl of cookies in the oven?"

She meant sheet of cookies (but she had just been mixing the dough in a bowl).

This happens every single day, sometimes 2-3 times a day. I've gotten used to it so I can usually figure it out. But sometimes she still stumps me.

Is there a name for this condition?
posted by buckaroo_benzai to Writing & Language (45 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
posted by FauxScot at 7:43 AM on July 23, 2013

posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:43 AM on July 23, 2013

She meant disk rack.

Do you mean dish rack?
posted by grouse at 7:45 AM on July 23, 2013 [69 favorites]

Best answer: Verbal paraphasia
posted by pipeski at 7:46 AM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

posted by vautrin at 7:46 AM on July 23, 2013

Verbal paraphasia seems the best match:
"Verbal paraphasias are confusions of words or the replacement of one word by another real word;"
posted by EndsOfInvention at 7:47 AM on July 23, 2013

It's called a malapropism, and it's just one kind of speech error. Everybody does it, some more than others, especially under stress or fatigue. It's not a "condition" unless you count carelessness and/or distractability as "conditions".

It's not aphasia either. That's far more serious. These are Spoonerisms, not a functional linguistic impairment.
posted by valkyryn at 7:47 AM on July 23, 2013 [12 favorites]

She may also just be a non-native speaker? When I lived in China my daily conversations were absolutely STUDDED with Chinese words that were related to the subject but definitely not correct. I knew they were wrong but also felt like they were close enough.
posted by kate blank at 7:47 AM on July 23, 2013

Those are known as malapropisms.
posted by hanov3r at 7:48 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Freudian slip

Slip of the tongue
posted by gyusan at 7:49 AM on July 23, 2013

Yeah, what valkyryn said. Her only condition is "being a human."
posted by kavasa at 7:55 AM on July 23, 2013 [4 favorites]

A mild case of fluent aphasia?
posted by benign at 7:56 AM on July 23, 2013

These are Spoonerisms

These are not Spoonerisms (which consist of swapping the beginning sounds of two adjacent words), nor are they examples of aphasia (which is a serious medical condition), nor are they Freudian slips (which are mischoices of word that are more revealing of the speaker's unconscious desire than the correct word would have been.)

Malapropism is closest.
posted by ook at 7:56 AM on July 23, 2013 [10 favorites]

I think of it as "imeantia" because it gets worse with age and people always say "I meant.." when you quietly enquire what they are talking about.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:04 AM on July 23, 2013 [14 favorites]

There is an exact word for this that I've seen before, but the closest thing I can find is semantic paraphasia.

Malapropism might be it too, it depends on the context. A malapropism generally sounds like the intended word, but the meanings of the words aren't related. Elephant:flatulent, electoral:electrical, radiator:gladiator.

Where this is more of a word picking problem. At least as you describe it. She is zeroing in on the right concept, and just not quite connecting with the right word. She pictures a bowl of cookie dough while she is trying to say sheet of cookies, and bowl comes out. Or the tent boat thing- they are contextually related, just mixed up.

But I do agree that it's just a normal part of someone's personality. It seems to happen to me when I'm trying to do too many things at once and don't take time to fully think about what I'm saying. I doubt it's any kind of disorder or disease. i *think* for something to be actual aphasia, it has to be pervasive and/or biologically caused, and not just a mistake.
posted by gjc at 8:11 AM on July 23, 2013

I don't think it's malapropism, as in that case the two words that are mixed up would have to sound alike. Semantic paraphasia appears closest, though I do agree with others here that it doesn't sound severe enough to classify as a disorder.
posted by Ms. Next at 8:21 AM on July 23, 2013

nor are they Freudian slips

Hey, maybe OP's friend is really into tents.

I read somewhere (probably here on metafilter) once that the wrong name issue is because the names are close in our emotional memory. This is why my dad calls my mom [my name] [her name] and why my mom calls my brother [her brother's name][her nephew's name][my brother's name].

Each name brings up similar feelings (love, family) so it's easy for our brains to trip and replace one for the other without even noticing it.
posted by phunniemee at 8:21 AM on July 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

posted by wrok at 8:23 AM on July 23, 2013

fwiw two of your examples may not fall into the category you are looking for: Dish drain is a perfect substitute for dish rack, they both mean the same thing and she was speaking clearly that time.

red tent - perhaps she meant red tint? I understand how it could easily be "red tent", but "red tint" may have been appropriate to the situation you describe.

All of which doesn't mean she isn't speaking in malapropisms, or whatever, but she may be dong it less then what you think.

or not
posted by edgeways at 8:23 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

The other day, I was talking with my husband about my tendency to do this, and I referred to them as "talkos." Like a typo, but with talking. I have many other speaking dumbs, including throwing grammar out the window when I'm stressed and dropping sentences because I'm not sure how to end them. I have no medical or neurological strangeness that would explain this; I'm just not a... good... talk... guy.

I'm sort of a quiet person and don't do a whole lot of talking, plus I learned to read very early and seem to think more fluently in written language than in spoken language. Anyway, it's common and no cause for alarm.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:37 AM on July 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Mod note: folks, stick to the topic please?
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:46 AM on July 23, 2013

I do this pretty often. while I don't know the name for it, I always figured it's a result of my ADHD -- not fully focusing on the thought/word at hand, because of all the other ones.
posted by changeling at 8:48 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: She meant disk rack.

Do you mean dish rack?

Hah! Got me. But I'm not talking about typos.
posted by buckaroo_benzai at 8:48 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I do this a lot; what I find interesting is that the replaced word is usually a noun, and always the same class of object: a kitchen object is replaced with another kitchen object, an animal is replaced with another animal etc. I think of it as a file system error, in which I've gotten to the right directory but the lookup fails past that point and instead spits out a random member of that directory.

Nerd aphasia?
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:56 AM on July 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

I call the dish rack a dish drainer all the time and I wouldn't be surprised if it comes out as "dish drain" sometimes.
posted by stopgap at 8:58 AM on July 23, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I realize that we all say the wrong things sometimes. But she does it very, very frequently. Much more than I have ever heard any other person do it. And like I said in the examples, the words are always somehow related. It's not like she's saying words that sound similar, or are totally random word substitutions. And yes, she is a native speaker. She's not confusing dish drain and dish rack. She knows the drain is the thing in the bottom of the sink, and the rack is the thing on the counter.

I think the most recent interesting example is the confusion of Hilary with Heather. They both start with the letter H, but she does not know ANYONE named Heather. Not even a coworker or acquaintance. It is very odd.

For example, at work, there are two of us guys in the office and we are about the same age and do the same job. My boss will sometimes call me the other guys name (and vice versa). This is normal, everybody does this. What my friend does is totally different and happens on a daily basis.
posted by buckaroo_benzai at 8:58 AM on July 23, 2013

Response by poster: This sounds close (from Wikipedia for Paraphasia):

Coordinate semantic paraphasias replace the target word with one that is from the same category, such as tiger for lion.

She definitely does this.

Like saying "Can you hand me the drill?" when I don't have a drill in my hand, I have a regular manual screwdriver. She'll totally admit that she meant to say screwdriver.
posted by buckaroo_benzai at 9:02 AM on July 23, 2013

"Bring modern style combined with convenience to your countertop with this attractive dish drain."
posted by stopgap at 9:04 AM on July 23, 2013

Response by poster: Actually, now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure she said "I didn't empty the drain this morning." instead of dish drain. Because my first thought was that she was talking about the food trap that we have in the drain, which may make sense to empty, but not really in the context of wanting to see if the other roommates would empty it (because our house issues revolve around who empties the dish rack, not the sink drain).

But either way, instead of arguing about whether a dish rack can also be called a dish drain, the point is, when I asked her to clarify, she said that she meant to say dish rack.
posted by buckaroo_benzai at 9:05 AM on July 23, 2013

I think the most recent interesting example is the confusion of Hilary with Heather. They both start with the letter H, but she does not know ANYONE named Heather.

In 8th grade, when I met a girl who would eventually become my best friend, I couldn't stop calling her Leslie. her name was Natalie. there was no reason for it. it's not like I knew any Leslies, or as if the name Leslie is anything close to the name Natalie. it was super embarrassing, but after a few weeks, my brain caught on.

a couple years later, we were in a summer school class together, chatting about who knows what, when our teacher scolded us: "Kirsten! Leslie! stop talking!"
posted by changeling at 9:07 AM on July 23, 2013

Spoonerisms? But "dish drain" and "dish rack" don't seem all that dissimilar to me.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:09 AM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mod note: OP, please don't threadsit.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:10 AM on July 23, 2013

Sounds like coordinate semantic paraphasias to me. I do this, but only with the names of colors. It's weird. I'm not too worried about it; I can function just fine in life even though I never use the right words for colors when I talk.
posted by k8lin at 9:15 AM on July 23, 2013

This is common with people who have ADHD. So yes, in that case "carelessness" and "distractibility" are an actual condition.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:53 AM on July 23, 2013

Again, I really don't think this is any kind of aphasia, including paraphasia, as those are mostly the result of significant brain damage, like a stroke, cancer, TBI, a ruptured blood vessel, etc. Thing is, these sorts of injuries are almost always associated with other, more severe symptoms, which this person does not seem to have.

Now IANAD, but it really sounds to me like she's just given to malapropisms. She's an otherwise healthy individual with no history of brain injury who happens to be given to speech errors. There may be a psycholinguistic thing at play here--psycholinguists have a variety of theories about language acquisition and formation which might explain something like this--but aphasias aren't psycolinguistic, they're neurological, and there doesn't seem to be any evidence of a neurological problem.

So yes, in that case "carelessness" and "distractibility" are an actual condition.

And don't I know it. But no one considers these symptoms to be indicative of a major problem with linguistic function, so this particular thing, i.e., common malapropisms with no evidence of brain injury, isn't a condition as such.
posted by valkyryn at 9:55 AM on July 23, 2013

I think the most recent interesting example is the confusion of Hilary with Heather. They both start with the letter H, but she does not know ANYONE named Heather. Not even a coworker or acquaintance. It is very odd.

Are you sure about that? Maybe she'd been introduced to a Heather earlier that day. Or had been reading celebrity news. Or she just plain forgot Hilary's name and cast about for the first female name she could think of that started with an H. There's a lot here that you can't be sure about, as far as what associations might be underlying her word choice. Plus, if you're frequently putting her in the position of clarifying which word she meant, she might just have started agreeing to go along with your substitutions (c.f. rack vs drain, drill vs screwdriver, etc.), either due to the power of suggestion or just not wanting to get into an in-depth discussion of psycholinguistics with you.

If anyone has an explanation for the phenomenon changeling describes, I'd be all ears. I've been called "Elizabeth"--my name is Katherine--at least four separate times that I can clearly recall, by several people (most of whom don't know each other), and only one case was someone associating me with another specific person due to speech/behavior. It's got to the point where someone will call me Elizabeth, apologize, mortified, and I'll say "It's okay. I get that surprisingly often."
posted by kagredon at 10:25 AM on July 23, 2013

Aphasia and paraphasia are serious medical diagnoses which you cannot make for her, nor should anyone in this thread. If you suspect she has something this serious, which it does not sound like she does, based on the example given, and which usually results from some sort of damage to language centers in the brain (but not always, or at least not always acutely), please recommend her to a specialist.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:32 AM on July 23, 2013

Response by poster: Yes, I'm sure she does not know a Heather. I asked. And sometimes, when she does mix things up, and I don't question her (because I can figure out what she meant) she will correct herself out loud anyway. We laugh about it all the time... it's actually quite endearing.

In the drill/screwdriver example, I didn't say anything or give her a quizzical look. I just handed her the screwdriver because I knew what she meant. And the second I put it in her hand, she said "I meant screwdriver" (with a smile on her face). About half the time she realizes right away that she said the wrong word. She knows she wanted a screwdriver. She meant to say screwdriver, but for some reason the word that came out was drill.

I also did not mean to imply in the original question that she has some sort of medical problem with her brain. Maybe I should have used another word besides 'condition'. Behavior? It just seems like she does it exceptionally often (practically every day), and always with words that are somehow related, but confused. I have never come across anyone else who does this, so I thought maybe there was a label and description for this type of word behavior.
posted by buckaroo_benzai at 10:41 AM on July 23, 2013

Is she a native English speaker, or did she learn English as a second or Nth language? A non-native speaker might just have a harder time coming up with the right word.
posted by StrawberryPie at 12:30 PM on July 23, 2013

The pattern of examples you've given don't really fit the spirit of what "malapropism" is intended to describe. A malapropism is a verbal gaffe caused by a substitution of a similar-sounding word with a completely unrelated meaning.

What you're talking about is kind of the opposite -- the substituted words don't really sound similar at all, but as you noted, their meaning is absolutely related to the intended word.

If you look at that Wikipedia list of speech errors, this would fall pretty squarely under "lexical selection error." It's a shame that no-one has a catchier name for such a common type of slip-up. (Likewise, there's not a good folk term for "behavior that sounds sort of like a description of verbal paraphasia without implying inappropriate diagnosis of a neurological disorder.")
posted by desuetude at 1:00 PM on July 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

People who suffer from Migraines do this sometimes.

The phrase "laundry biscuit" is a running joke at my house for this very reason.

(I will probably never live it down)
posted by Cookbooks and Chaos at 1:12 PM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

AKA "Archie Bunkerism"
posted by Dansaman at 1:15 PM on July 23, 2013

This is common with Fibromyalgia and Chronic fatigue syndrome, and with medication for chronic pain.
posted by Year of meteors at 6:16 PM on July 23, 2013

This sounds similar to what I do when I'm busy or have a lot on my mind. The way I explain it is that I'm a very visual thinker and the thoughts in my brain get ahead of what I'm talking about. So say in case of the camping example I'll be thinking about camping and maybe what I'm going to do while camping and while I need to say something about a tent, my brain is ahead thinking about a boat and it comes out.

I've done it with tools before when working on something with my husband. I know I need the hammer but am already ahead thinking about what comes next when I'll need a screwdriver so screwdriver will come out instead of a hammer. I'm 'picturing' the entirety of what I'm focusing on and picking the wrong part.

It's hard to explain. I don't think it's anything like ADHD. It seems to happen more when I'm really focused on something and my thinking brain just gets ahead of what my mouth can get out.
posted by Jalliah at 6:39 PM on July 23, 2013

Normal. Which reminds me, it's time to switch on my hot water blanket.
posted by superfish at 10:53 PM on July 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

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