Applied Blunderology


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

Charged by God to tell old Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” Moses tried to shirk the chore. In The Ten Commandments, Charlton Heston, who later talked thousands into joining the National Rifle Association, played the leader of the Israelites as a fountain of grandiloquence. In contrast to Heston (who also supplied the voice of Yahweh), the biblical Moses was a rather shabby orator. “I am not a man of words,” he tells God in Exodus 4:10. “Tongue-tied am I.” Rejecting his servant’s lame excuse, the deity dispatches Moses to the Egyptian court, but lets him take along brother Aaron to serve as spokesperson.

Politics in the United States offers abundant evidence that eloquence is not requisite for election. No one gets into office by overestimating the American voter’s hunger for clarity, logic, and truth. Reporting the passing of President Warren G. Harding in 1923, e.e. cummings observed: “The only man, woman, or child who ever wrote a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors is dead.” Dwight Eisenhower, famous for syntactical rambles, appealed to class resentment of verbal poise when he railed against the Truman administration: “We are tired of aristocratic explanations in Harvard words.” To prove he was a man of the people and not a privileged scion of the Anglo-Saxon ascendancy, George Herbert Walker Bush dropped the g’s in his gerunds. His son, who declared that, “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream,” dropped the appearance of coherence.

Faux populism demands that leaders dangle modifiers and yoke subjects to disagreeable verbs at least as often as the rest of us. And as Michael Erard points out, disfluencies-interruptions in speech-are as common as, uh, y’know, like, well … kudzu. According to one study, telephone conversations average 8.83 disfluencies per 100 words. While Erard’s name suggests he was born to write about errata, his Ph.D. in linguistics from UT-Austin certifies he was trained for it. In Um … Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, Erard, an Observer contributor, offers “a work of applied blunderology.” His book is a detailed and diverting survey of malapropisms, spoonerisms, stutters, solecisms, and other gaffes that clutter our speech. For Erard, to stammer is human, and verbal blunders are in fact “an indelible mark of humanness.” No computer or chimpanzee ever said, “I know it’s hard to put food on your family.” It was George W. Bush, and Erard, who writes in praise of folly, is remarkably tolerant toward the bumbler in chief.

A Bronx cheer to Cicero’s De Oratore, the classical treatise on how to speak well, Um … is a study and celebration of how speech is botched. An appendix lists dozens of verbal stumbles, including repetitions, malaphors (“hit the nail right on the nose”), tip of the tongue amnesia, consonant reversals (“cake a bake”), perseveration (“black bloxes”), and filled pauses (“uh”). Erard is interested not just in mangled language, but also how perceptions of defective rhetoric have changed over the centuries. Being uptight about articulation is, he argues, a modern mania. He contends that expectations of flawless discourse are relatively recent, that it took the advent of gramophones and radios to turn speech into an object of appraisal. Hemming and hawing repudiate the hygiene of industrialized culture, and um is like a vibrant slum that defies urban planning. “People began to prefer umlessness in public speaking and conversation,” Erard observes, “around the same time they began to value order, organization, planning, and efficiency in an increasingly complex and urbanizing society.” The useful cog in a bureaucratic wheel never misspoke. In the brave new world of perfectly formulated phrases, spluttering strikes a blow against fascism.

A connoisseur of fumbles, Erard has a professional incentive to encourage their occurrence. “As unavoidable as they are ineradicable,” he notes, “verbal blunders are rich with meaning.” Yet he is less interested in devising his own interpretations of the gaffe than in reviewing how other specialists have squeezed meaning out of linguistic lemons. He profiles the rare species of blunderologist, men and women who eavesdrop on conversations to compile lists of slips for analysis. One, Jeri Jaeger, shadowed her three children from infancy into adolescence, noting every time they said something odd, such as “beek-a-poo” and “I want my blaceret.” Such goofs shine a light on how language is acquired and how it works.

The father of modern blunderology, according to Erard, was Rudolf Meringer, a Viennese professor whose 1889 Misspeaking and Misreading categorized 8,800 verbal slips he amassed by monitoring conversations of friends, relatives, students, and strangers. When Sigmund Freud, in his 1904 The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, applied psychology to the genesis of verbal gaffes, Meringer argued that misstatements are a more reliable guide to how language, rather than the mind, works. More Meringerian than Freudian, Erard admires the work of numerous later linguists. He is particularly impressed by the contributions of UCLA linguist Victoria Fromkin to slip science.

Following the formula of popular nonfiction for nonspecialists, Erard makes stories out of studies, traveling to the offices of blunderologists to interview them. Jerry Giorgio, a retired New York City homicide detective, tells him how suspects’ verbal miscues provide crucial information. In Chicago, corporate consultant David Zulawski explains what blunders during an interview indicate about an employee. At Stanford, Arnold Zwicky describes his research on “eggcorns”-malapropisms such as “tow the line,” “exercise regiment,” and “for all intensive purposes,” based on misunderstanding a word or idiom. In Shanghai, Erard visits Saybot, a company whose software helps Chinese avoid flawed English.

In the book’s liveliest section, Erard recounts his visit to Reno for the annual convention of Toastmasters International, an organization with 200,000 members in 180 countries. Founded in 1924 by self-help guru Ralph Smedley and dedicated to personal improvement through public speaking, Toastmasters represents the ultimate in what Erard calls the “aesthetic of umlessness,” which demands the elimination of verbal flaws as if they were vile habits. The highlight of the Toastmasters convention is billed as the “World Series of public speaking, the Olympics of oratory, the final bout for the heavyweight title of World Champion of Public Speaking.” Accompanied by former champ David Brooks of Austin, Erard perversely listens for gaffes and is gratified to find them. He takes pleasure in recounting the career of Kermit Schaefer, who made a fortune catering to public hunger for hearing someone else misspeak. The slips that Schaefer collected and circulated, through records, radio, TV, and books, entertained the nation and established him, long before his death in 1979, as “the king of bloopers.”

Collecting bloopers today seems a bit quaint, like collecting orange crate labels. Though slip science slides on, why is Um … appearing now? The subtext-and pretext-of the book is that in 2007 you don’t need a blunderologist to tell you that the most powerful man in the world is a gaffe factory. Erard explains that he began his project out of fascination “with how George W. Bush’s speech was portrayed, even fetishized, by the media and other observers.” Erard titles his penultimate chapter, a discussion of Bush’s verbal bungles, “President Blunder.” While quoting several of Bush’s egregious bloopers, Erard contends that other public figures-Dan Quayle, Bush père, even Thomas Jefferson-also mangled English. He paints the 43rd president as a victim of changing expectations by citizens who average seven to 22 slips of the tongue a day. While supporting standards of excellence in public discourse, he asks us to chill out, to accept slips as normal. The final words of Um … ask that we “not only forgive our blunders but enjoy them.”

Joy isn’t exactly the result when Bush proclaims: “I don’t care what the polls say. I don’t. I’m doing what I think what’s wrong.” We are more attentive to miscues by the president than by other mortals. Yogi Berra is said to have said, “I didn’t really say everything I said.” Like Berra, Bush has become a repository of apocryphal gaffes, but he has uttered enough real ones on the record to embarrass anyone who values clarity and truth. When Berra erred, a game could be lost; a blunder by a president bears a higher potential cost. During Elizabeth II’s recent U.S. visit, Bush recalled, “You’ve helped our nation celebrate our bicentennial in 1776.” That was a failure to communicate. But when the man in charge confuses Slovenia and Slovakia, refers to Africa as “a nation of incredible disease,” and comments on the balance of trade with: “More and more of our imports come from overseas,” we have to wonder how that affects policy.

In the 1976 film Bedazzled, a character with a severe speech impediment struggles for agonizing moments to express a thought. “Well, that’s easy for you to say,” replies Peter Cook. It is not easy for us to listen. Sometimes stumbling in a sentence can be as refreshingly natural as a child’s belch during a stuffy sermon. But the bloopers that Bush, a graduate of Andover, Yale, and Harvard, emits betray a blend of ignorance and insouciance. They are not refreshing, even if natural. President Blunder is farting at the world.

Steven G. Kellman, a professor in the department of English, Classics, and Philosophy at the University of Texas at San Antonio, was recently awarded the National Book Critic Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.