Um…: Slips, Tumbles, and Verbal Blunders, And What They Mean

Link: The Amazon Review is here.

Um…, as I shall refer to the book, is an unusual book on many counts. I read books in several non-fiction genres. But books, that marry genres, such as food memoirs of MFK Fisher or Mark Abley’s language-cum-travel memoirs, find favour with me.

I read Um… on an oblique recommendation from a friend, who was reading it too. I found it overall a fascinating book especially for those with an itch for being pedantic about language, grammar and its uses and abuses. Was the friend trying to tell me something? There is a thought I shall leave unexplored, because I believe we are quite direct with each other and need not bother with dropping hints.

At a good 252 pages, not including the useful glossary and appendices, Um… pre-requires the reader to have a deep love for languages, in general. It would also add greatly to the enjoyment of the book, if the reader is curious about linguistic quirks and history.

In return for all this, the author, Michael Erard, a linguist and a PhD in English, presents with irreverence and panache, this work of ‘applied blunderology’ – or ‘word botching’ as a back cover reviewer describes it – that aims to examine how verbal blunders happen, what they mean and if they matter. This chronicle of the history of verbal slips, tumbles and blunders from the time of Reverend Spooner to President George W. Bush is written accessibly with humour, and has been edited tightly so as to be free of the bloopers that are its subject.

The 11-chapter book starts with the story of Reverend Spooner who lends his name to ‘spoonerisms’. As usual, the facts are not half as fun as the story, which is not the writer’s fault, but the story has been told well, which is to the writer’s credit, especially since he weaves with it the story of the changes in the understanding of human cognition.

A longer second chapter on the Freudian slip follows dispelling or at least challenging the commonly held notion that a Freudian slip must hint at something sexual or repressed. Soon after reading the chapter, I addressed the said friend, as ‘My <Name>‘ instead of ‘Mr <Name>‘. However since he too had read the book, I was able to retract my mistake quickly and without embarrassment on either side.

‘Some Facts about Verbal Blunders’ discusses the origins and peculiarities of blunders and slips, how they vary from person to person; how they indicate a person’s physical, emotional and mental state; and how there really are knows-better and doesn’t-know-better types of errors in human speech. Erard says he is fascinated by ‘knows better’ type of errors and by how they get treated like some sort of moral failing (note to self: I need to start checking my tendency to proof-read nearly everything set in front of me, including Um… and to stop wondering how he knows me so well.).

The chapters that follow discuss technical, social and biological aspects of language, and speech disfluencies; the brief history of ‘Um…’ and the story of Toastmasters. My favourite chapter in the book was Erard’s assessment of President Blunder, oops, Bush and how societally pre-determined and inextricable from their speaking abilities our expectations of ‘leaders’ are. The book concludes with the author’s hope of note on the future of blunderology, that we may come to watch, forgive and enjoy our blunders.

Erard warns readers that a side-effect of reading the book may be that a pedant’s antennae become unusually fine-tuned to listening for and catching disfluencies, boners, eggcorns, mondegreens and (what I call) “snooperisms”, not just in others, but in oneself too. That certainly was my experience. I also began to notice much more my own self-correction tendencies as well as those of others.

The book is not an easy read all through, but that is probably just my experience. Some chapters, in my view, seriously need the non-linguist to re-read. I also read rather rapidly so sometimes delayed connections made in my neural circuits require me to return to the text. This book has not yet had that second outing with me. The writing style changes in difficulty levels sometimes, so the time taken to read and absorb may vary from chapter to chapter. This too could be a side-effect of the fact that I am trying to take some notes which I condense into the book review, and may not apply to a reader, reading for fun.

Overall, a great read. Set aside about 6-7 hours for it and they will not have been wasted.

Star rating: 4 out of 5.

Usefulness note: An advantage of such a book available in festive times of the year is that it solves the problem of buying a present for the dedicated and curious pedant(s) in one’s life. This book makes it to my to-gift list this year.