Sun, Jul 24, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Finding music in mistakes: confessions of a blooper snooper

Unintended meanings from the inadvertent use of the wrong word in just the right place have long tickled funny bones. One author spends his time collecting them

By Richard Lederer  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Word botches are music to my ears, and over the years I've arranged five anthologies of fluffs, flubs, goofs, gaffes, blunders, boners ... well, you get the idea.

As a word-bethumped language guy, I adhere firmly to the blooper snooper's code, taking only what I find and contriving nothing. How could I possibly concoct this vivid headline: "Grandmother of eight makes hole in one?" How could I improve on this receptionist's voice-mail advice: "Please leave a message. The doctors are out of the office or else on the phone and me, too?" Nor could I manufacture the sign in an Acapulco restaurant: "The manager has personally passed all the water served here." And could I come close to matching this student's sentence: "In 1957, Eugene O'Neill won a Pullet Surprise?" Or this one: "Ancient Egyptian women wore a calasiris, a loose-fitting garment which started just below the breasts which hung to the floor?" Forget it.

Why do we all delight so in bloopers? One clue may come from the origin of the word itself. Blooper first appeared in American English in the mid-1920s as a description of a wounded fly ball looped past the reach of the infielders. Almost at the same time, the verb to bloop began to mean operating a radio set in such a way that it emitted howls and whistles, perhaps an echo of our reactions to physical or verbal howlers. About a decade later, the nouns bloop and blooper came to signify pratfalls of the body and tongue.

Thomas Fuller, the English clergyman and wit (1608-1661), once wrote, "Birds are entangled by their feet and men by their tongues." The humor and appeal of bloopers lies, in part, in the probability that even as we roar at the misspeak of others, we are just as apt to trip over our own tongues. It is the very artlessness of other people's lapses that makes them so endearing and makes us feel (temporarily) so superior. As the parent says to the child, "I'm laughing with you, not at you."

Just as we thrill when the mighty fall in a stage tragedy, we delight when men and women of lofty stature engage their mouths without first putting their brains in gear. Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger once explained, "I think that gay marriage is something that should be between a man and a woman." Gray Davis, the governor replaced by Schwarzenegger, proclaimed, "My vision is to make the most diverse state on earth, and we have people from every planet on the earth in this state."

The best bloopers inspire the kind of bisociative thinking we experience with puns. Punnery, to coin a word, is largely the trick of compacting two or more ideas within a single word or expression. Puns challenge us to apply the greatest pressure per square syllable of language; they surprise us by flouting the law of nature pretending that two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time. While plays on words exploit the density of language, any denseness residing in bloopers is accidental. Don and Aileen Pace Nilsen, humorologists at Arizona State University, explain: "Blunders and bloopers are genuinely funny because they involve the reader or listener in mentally drawing together two scripts -- the one that was said and the one that was intended. To qualify, the error has to be far enough away from the original to communicate some other meaning yet close enough that the listener or reader can connect it to the unintended meaning."

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