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.

Only As Good As Your Word

Links:  A link to this review can be found on the author’s blog here. The Amazon Review is here.

My reading backlog is being dented rapidly even as I keep adding books to the pile called to-read. As far as I can, I intend reviewing those books here, or on Amazon-UK, or both.

This post’s title refers to Susan Shapiro’s eponymous book.

At 400 pages, this book demands a lot of time and attention from the reader. Amazingly enough, it took me just 1 day – albeit the whole of that day of my weekend – to finish it. This is down to Susan Shapiro’s writing style which is simple, conversational, light and fast-paced. At times, the breathlessness, with which she might regale a story in person, comes through quite amusingly.

The book is the story – or more accurately, the stories – of Susan Shapiro’s relationships with her writing mentors, interwoven with her running of a very popular writing group in her apartment for many years, her professional progress as a writer all set against a rather rich tapestry of New York’s Jewish society and New York’s publishing world’s glitterati. When the said writing group is dismantled, a student says “I am going to need therapy”. That therapeutic element, in essence, is the sublimation of Shapiro’s relationships with her mentors. She refers to more than one mentor as being like ‘her father’ with whom she appears to have a rather emotionally distant relationship, and then a protégé as ‘her kid sister’.

One has to ask whether for her, every relationship is one prolonged therapy session and exactly when is it that an issue can be deemed “resolved”. Other readers may feel differently about this common thread running through the book, but to me, it was a bit ennui-inducing after some time.

But it is a credit to the book that I still read on.

The most valuable bits are the last 2 chapters: How To Have A Protégé, and How To Get Great Gurus Of Your Own. To budding or growing writers, the tips are brutal but spot-on.

No matter how keen you are to find your own voice, the author’s note before the table of contents is instructive: “Some names and identifying characteristics of people portrayed in this book have been obscured so they won’t divorce, disown, hate, kill, or sue me.”

Rightly so, it is there at the beginning. A rule all writers ignore at their peril.

After all, “a true friend walks in when everybody walks out” , but as Shapiro asked herself (page 262), “who’d be there for you when you were up”. Worth pondering. No matter how tempting it is for a writer to find – and write and publish – juicy stories about one’s family, friends and community, it is always worth having someone who loves the writer and will be happy for her success when it comes, admittedly at its own pace.

I recommend the book highly, but not as the only book to have in the arsenal of a budding writer.

On Amazon, I gave it 4 stars. I recognise it is autobiographical but some of the book is too self-obsessed and too neurotic for my liking; some details of internecine feuds were also avoidable. There are a few, not many but a few, distracting spelling and grammar bloopers in the book, which could have been edited e.g. “none of them ARE”.

Star rating: The book deserves all its 4 stars for the many gems for writers and freelancers, scattered generously through the book.

Usefulness note: The book will interest both budding and established young writers.