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."
Do I spend all day scouring newspapers, magazines, essays and signs? No, I rely on the kindness of strangers. Sure, I happen on some items myself, but most of the thuds I publish are sent to me by fellow snoopers from (to mix a metaphor) the four corners of the globe.
The genre of blooper I receive most often is the malapropism. Born as a character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play The Rivals (1775), Mrs. Malaprop was an "old weather-beaten she-dragon" who took special pride in her use of the King's English: "Sure, if I reprehend anything in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue and a nice derangement of epitaphs." Ever since her dramatic debut, her name has come to signify the humorous misuse of big words.
Members of my posse sometimes wing me grammar errors: "To be sure, his investments in the media giants wasn't enough to give him editorial control." A mere disagreeable subject and verb do not a blooper make. No double entendre (or "double Nintendo," as somebody once blooped) exists here. I also receive examples that simply aren't funny: "Following the tenants of both the Zone Diet and the American Heart Association, Balance for Life provides three meals a day plus snacks." In this artifact, of course, "tenants" should be "tenets," but the inadvertent substitution does not conjure any wiggy images that detonate stomachs into a rolling boil.
Every now and then I am granted strings of verbal pearls, like these from admissions applications to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine: "I am in the mist of choosing colleges." "I was abducted into the national honor society." "I have made the horror role every semester." In such many-faceted jewels we do find a shiny conspiracy of two meanings -- one intended and one unwitting -- and the conjunction of images sets us to laughter.
Of the thousands of specimens of inspired gibberish that I've captured and put on display, my favorite is this gem from a student essay: "Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper." The statement is hysterically unhistorical, and we have no trouble believing that a student actually wrote it. How blunderful that one young scholar's innocent confusion of "circumnavigate" and "circumcise" and accidental pun on "clipper" can beget such nautical naughtiness. This creation is one of the greatest bloopers ever blooped.
Richard Lederer is the author most recently of The Revenge of Anguished English and Comma Sense: A Fun-damental Guide to Punctuation. He is a co-host of A Way With Words on US public radio. William Safire is on vacation.
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