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Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean

Written by Michael ErardAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Michael Erard

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On Sale: August 21, 2007
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-375-42515-8
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Synopsis

This original, entertaining, and surprising book investigates verbal blunders: what they are, what they say about those who make them, and how and why we've come to judge them.Um... is about how you really speak, and why it's normal for your everyday speech to be filled with errors—about one in every ten words. In this charming, engaging account of language in the wild, linguist and writer Michael Erard also explains why our attention to some blunders rises and falls. Where did the Freudian slip come from? Why do we prize "umlessness" in speaking—and should we? And how do we explain the American presidents who are famous for their verbal stumbles? Full of entertaining examples, Um... is essential reading for talkers and listeners of all stripes.

Excerpt

Chapter 1: The Secrets of Reverend Spooner

If the world of verbal blunders were the night sky, the Reverend William Archibald Spooner of Oxford University could play the role of the North Star. Spooner, who was born in 1844, was famous for verbal blundering so incorrigible that his exploits have been immortalized in poems and songs and, most enduringly, by lending his name to a type of slip of the tongue he was unusually prone to make. In the spoonerism, sounds from two words are exchanged or reversed, resulting in a phrase that is inappropriate for the setting. For Spooner, these embarrassments ranged from wild to mild. Toasting Queen Victoria at dinner, Spooner said, “Give three cheers for our queer old dean,” and he greeted a group of farmers as “noble tons of soil.” There was the time he cautioned young missionaries against having “a half-warmed fish in their hearts.” He described Cambridge in the winter as “a bloody meek place.” Once Spooner berated a student for “fighting a liar in the quadrangle.” “You have hissed all my mystery lectures,” he reportedly said. “In fact, you have tasted two whole worms and you must leave Oxford this afternoon by the next town drain.” A spoonerism can also involve the reversal of two words, as in “Courage to blow the bears of life,” or, when saying good-bye to someone, “Must you stay, can’t you go?”

Undergraduates at Oxford University were playfully fond of Spooner, whom they nicknamed “the Spoo.” They also coined the term “spoonerism” around 1885, after Spooner had been a fellow at New College for almost twenty years. By 1892, his reputation for absentmindedness was well known; students came to New College expecting to hear a spoonerism. “Well, I’ve been up here for four years, and never heard the Spoo make a spoonerism before, and now he makes a damned rotten one at the last minute,” wrote one student. (Spooner had assured students that experience would teach them that “the weight of rages will press harder and harder upon the employer.”) Spooner himself knew of his public image. Privately he referred to his “transpositions of thought.” At the end of a speech he once gave to a group of alumni, he said, “And now I suppose I’d better sit down, or I might be saying—er—one of those things.” The scientist Julian Huxley (a New College fellow under Spooner for six years), who was present at the scene, said that the audience reacted with “perhaps the greatest applause he ever got.”

The British humor magazine Punch called Spooner “Oxford’s great metaphasiarch.”[1] Spooner’s reputation was also carried beyond Oxford and even out of England by newspapers’ joke columns, funny pages, and “quips and quirks” sections. One example of screwy language from around this time is an 1871 collection by the American writer C. C. Bombaugh, titled The Book of Blunders. Though it didn’t mention Spooner, Bombaugh’s book promised a grab bag anthology of “Hibernicisms, bulls that are not Irish and typographic errors.” In addition to slips of the printing press, Bombaugh included slips of the telegraph. A French cleric was once greeted at the train station by a funeral bier—intended for him—because the telegraph operator had mistaken Père Ligier et moi (Father Ligier and I) for Père Ligier est mort (Father Ligier is dead). One New Yorker ordered flowers from a florist in Philadelphia, telegraphing a need for “two hand bouquets,” which the telegraph clerk printed as “two hund. bouquets.” When the New Yorker refused to pay for 198 unwanted bouquets, the florist sued him and lost. Then the florist sued the telegraph company and (according to Bombaugh) won. Such were the legal liabilities of a verbal blunder. On the face of it, slurs against the Irish and accidents of typography seem to have little in common. Yet the opportunity to mock and laugh about either one neutralized the perceived threats of immigrants and technological change.[2]

The public’s taste for outrageous jabberwocky may have predated Spooner, but his sayings appeared so frequently and widely that the spoonerism was known around the English-speaking world early in the twentieth century. On a visit to South Africa in 1912, Spooner said in a letter to his wife that “the Johannesburg paper had an article on my visit to Johannesburg, but of course they thought me most famous for my Spoonerisms, so I was not greatly puffed up.” In the 1920s, Spooner encountered an American woman at a concert who asked if he was Dr. Spooner. As Spooner wrote in his diary, “She replied I was the best known name in America except Mr. Hudson Shaw [sic] . . . to have known a celebrity, even the author of ‘Spoonerisms’ means a good deal, tho’ I explained to her that I was better known for my defects than for any merits.”[3]

In all, Spooner spent almost sixty years as a member of New College, starting as a student in 1862, then as a fellow in 1867. To get the position, he had to take an oral exam, which he not only passed but excelled at. He ascended the ranks until he became warden, a sort of chaplain, from 1903 to 1924. He was married, had seven children, and lived in a sixteen-bedroom mansion staffed with eleven servants. When he was fifty-two years old, he tried to learn to ride a bicycle. (Or “a well-boiled icicle,” as he put it.) He was also a revered classics scholar and a respected school leader. He had a rare gift, said Huxley, “of making people feel that he was deeply interested in their own particular affairs.” As an albino (“not a full albino with pink eyes,” Huxley remembered, “but one with very pale blue eyes and white hair just tinged with straw color”), Spooner had horrifically poor eyesight and could read only with his eyes several inches from the page. He also spoke with a squeaky, high-pitched voice and said “uh” a lot—perhaps because he was trying to avoid making the slips he’d become famous for.

“He looked like a rabbit, but he was brave as a lion,” said the historian Arnold Toynbee. Spooner himself was more modest. “I am, I hope, to some extent a useful kind of drudge,” he wrote in a letter, “but not a ruler of men.”



Spoonerisms are the comfortable shoes of slips of the tongue: when it comes time to illustrate the universality speech errors, they’re so familiar and broken in, they always get a laugh. Far from the funny pages, though, they exhibit properties that have been observed in Latin, Croatian, German, English, Greek, and French (among other languages). Spoonerisms all work the same way: the reversed sounds come from the beginnings of the words, rarely at the ends, and very often from the syllable that carries the stress.[4] Spooner wouldn’t likely have accused a student of “righting a file in the quadrangle” or announced the hymn in chapel as “conkingering kwers their titles take.”

The scientific name for a spoonerism is an exchange, or in the Greek, metaphasis. Just as the word “Kleenex” now refers to all paper tissues, “spoonerism” serves as the blanket term for all exchanges of sounds. In general, consonants are more often transposed than vowels. As the psychologist Donald MacKay has observed, the sounds reverse across a distance no greater than a phrase, evidence that a person planning what to say next does so at about a phrase’s span in advance. Cognitively it would be nearly impossible for Spooner (or anyone else) to say something like, “For womework tonight you will read and translate the first page of Caesar’s Gallic Whores.”

We might want to distinguish the spoonerism from the more generic exchange—certainly there’s a difference between one that results in two actual words (as in, “May I sew you into a sheet?”) and one that results in nonsense (as in praying that the congregation would be filled with “fresh veal and new zigor”). The distinction is necessary because it raises a legitimate linguistic question: do slips of the tongue like these produce real words more frequently than they result in nonwords? The implication is that if real words (“sew you into a sheet”) are more frequent, then how our minds produce words becomes a bit clearer. Specifically, it suggests that in the rapid processes involved in thinking and speaking, a speaker inspects a word as a whole, not as a sequence of specific sounds. Thus, a word that “looks right” to the speaker—or, more precisely, to a sort of internal editor or blunder checker—will be cleared for pronouncing, like planes are cleared for takeoff. In fact, studies have shown that people tend to make more speech errors that involve individual sounds and produce legitimate words.[5]

[1] From the Greek word metaphasis, literally “the transposition of sounds.”

[2] “An Irish Bull may very well be defined as any remark which appears rotund and meaningful enough, until our apprehension actually arrives upon it, when there is simply nothing there,” as Max Eastman put it. Example: “May you never live to see your wife a widow.”

[3] She may have meant George Bernard Shaw. . . .

[4] Word stress can also determine whether or not slips occur. Manjari Ohala, a linguist at San José State University, has claimed that Hindi speakers (of which she’s one) do not make exchange slips because, she speculates, Hindi words don’t have a syllable with stronger stress. She’s asked linguists in India to listen for slips, but they’ve reported nothing. This makes Hindi a language that lacks verbal blunders, at least of some types.

[5] Among adult native speakers, slips of sounds are more frequent than slips of words. According to Kay Bock, 40 percent of exchange errors involve sounds; slightly more than 35 percent involve words.


From the Hardcover edition.
Michael Erard

About Michael Erard

Michael Erard - Um. . .

Photo © Wyatt McSpadden

Michael Erard, a graduate of Williams College, received an M.A. in linguistics and a PH.D. in English from the University of Texas. His articles have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Wired, and Technology Review, among many other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.
Praise

Praise

“An enjoyable tour of linguistic mishaps. . . . Rewarding. . . . It reveals the dynamic nature of the human mind.”—The New York Times Book Review“Engaging. . . . By focusing on what many of us overlook (or underhear?), Erard has further revealed the complexity and beauty of language. Perhaps he will make all of us both better listeners and, um, better speakers.”—The Seattle Times“A fascinating look at those two-letter words we all know and, uh, overuse.”—GQ“Erard's enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. He gets you wondering about blundering.”—The Wall Street Journal“Some people are bird watchers and learn a great deal about the birds they watch. Michael Erard watches word botchers and, in the process, enriches our experience of what language is about and what makes us human. After reading Um, you'll never hear the thud and blunder of everyday speech in the same way.”—Richard Lederer, author of Anguished English“Who'd have thought that a book called Um could be a page-turner? But Michael Erard's investigtions of "applied blunderology" come to something more than the familiar catalogues of verbal slips and gaffes from the high and the low. It's also a fascinating meditation on why blunders happen, and what they tell us about language and ourselves. At its deepest level,  Um is an exercise in the zen of attention, which tunes us in to the revealing noises and pauses that we spend most of our time tuning out.”—Geoffrey Nunberg, NPR commentator“A lascinating fook at yet another revealing instance of human imperfection.”—Kirkus (Starred Review)“Included throughout are hilarious highlight reels of bloopers, boners, Spoonerisms, malapropisms and ‘eggcorns'... His work challenges the reader to think about his or her own speech in an entirely new way."—Publishers Weekly

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