BOOKS & THE CULTURE Applied Blunderology BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN Urn … Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean By Michael Erard Pantheon 304 pages, $24.95 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 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. cnmmings 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, disfluenciesinterruptions in speechare 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 … 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, Urn … is a study and celebration of how speech is botched. An appendix lists dozens of verbal stumbles, paid advertisment including repetitions, malaphors \(“hit tongue amnesia, consonant reversals “black 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 Austin IMPEACH NOW Forum A forum of distinguished speakers discussing the importance of seeking justice through the impeachment of Bush & Cheney Saturday 07/07/07 4 ,-7prn First Universalist-Unitarian Church 4700 Grover 4 more info: austinimpeach.org 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JUNE 29, 2007
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