Dialogue Lessons From The Sopranos: “The characters speak in malapropisms, mangled idioms, and mispronunciations.”

From a post on countercraft.substack.com by Lincoln Michel headlined “Gabagool and Malpropisms: Dialogue lessons from The Sopranos”:

I’ve been slowly working my way through a rewatch of The Sopranos and remain in awe of the show. Despite debuting over 20 years ago, it still feels like a breath of fresh TV air. I think the reason is tone. The Sopranos is a show that feels full of life. Yes, it’s a mob drama with lots of violence and intrigue, but there’s also a huge amount of love, small talk, lightness, surreality, and humor….

One particular aspect of craft The Sopranos excels at is dialogue, and a notable feature is the errors. The characters are constantly speaking in malapropisms, mangled idioms, and mispronunciations. They mishear things or misquote each other. It happens so much it feels like a distinctive feature of the show. I can’t think of a single other TV show that deploys so many errors in dialogue.

If you don’t know, a malapropism is when you accidentally substitute a similar sounding word or phrase for the correct one. Some Sopranos examples:

Tony: “I was prostate with grief.”

Little Carmine: “There’s no stigmata connected with going to a shrink.”

Christopher: “Create a little dysentery in the ranks.”

Jonny: “She’s an albacore around my neck.”

Sometimes the linguistic errors on The Sopranos are less malapropisms and more half-remembered idioms or terms:

Tony: “Revenge is like serving cold cuts.” (Dr. Melfi: “I think it’s ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold.’” Tony: “What did I say?”)

Christopher: “Keep your eye on the tiger, man.”

Little Carmine: “If there is one thing my dad taught me, it is this: a pint of blood costs more than a gallon of gold.”

Tony: “Water over the dam.”

Little Carmine: “You’re at a precipice of an enormous crossroads.”

The use of malapropisms and other linguistic errors for buffoonish characters is an old theater tactic dating back to Shakespeare and before. The term itself comes from the 1775 play The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, in which Mrs. Malaprop says things like “he is the very pineapple of politeness.” You give your dumbest, most pretentious, or most clownish character these errors to let the audience know what a dunce they are.

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