That's Not What I Meant to Say
THE other day my nine-year-old daughter was telling me a story, and at one point she couldn't decide whether to say billions or bunches, so out popped a portmanteau word: "I've got binches," she said, then giggled at her mistake.
To the casual observer that blooper is cute, but to Michael Erard, a journalist who specializes in writing about language, it is fodder for analysis. In "Um...," his first book, which he describes as "a work of applied blunderology," he argues that verbal blundering is natural, meaningful and "integral to language."
Mr. Erard's enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. He gets you wondering about blundering. While you're reading "Um..." (and perhaps for a long while after) you'll be on the qui vive for others' slips and painfully aware of your own -- which, Mr. Erard informs us, constitute a whopping 5% to 8% of the words you utter every day.
There are two main categories of blunders: slips of the tongue and "speech disfluencies." A slip is "a momentary loss of control over speaking"; a disfluency is "one of the blurps and interruptions in what we think should be smoothly flowing talk."
Recounting the research of linguists and cognitive scientists in easygoing, anecdotal prose, Mr. Erard shows how "slips result from a mental plan gone awry, while disfluencies represent a delay or interruption in planning itself." While we tend to notice slips of the tongue, and often make fun of them, we tend to ignore disfluencies (especially our own) unless they are salient or habitual.
Well-known slips include the malapropism, named after the character Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals," and the spoonerism, named after the Rev. William Archibald Spooner (1844-1930), the famously soapy-tongued warden of New College, Oxford.
A spoonerism is a reversal of the initial letters or syllables of words, as when Spooner reputedly toasted Queen Victoria: "Here's to our queer old dean!" My favorite spoonerism is an intentional one attributed to Dorothy Parker: "I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy."
A malapropism is a humorous confusion of words that sound alike, as when Curly of the Three Stooges says, "I resemble that remark!" One special type of malapropism is the eggcorn, a word someone uses incorrectly but believes to be correct, "a sort of ossified slip of the tongue" based on mishearing or mispronunciation: for all intensive purposes; when all is set and done. "Eggcorn" itself is an eggcorn for acorn.
Among the other common but lesser-known slips (linguists have documented as many as 50 kinds) are the "anticipation," or "forward error" (a leading list for a reading list); the "perseveration," or "backward error" (black bloxes for black boxes); and the inadvertent blend (my daughter's binches).
The speech disfluencies, which are "far more frequent," says Mr. Erard, comprise a host of "unsmooth moments": pause fillers (uh and um), repeated words ("Will-will you marry me?"), repeated sounds ("B-b-but I just can't"), prolonged vowels or syllables, and restarted or "repaired" sentences. I wish Mr. Erard had added one more type to his list: verbal tics (y'know, like, basically, I mean). Given the annoying frequency of such words and phrases, the omission is especially disappointing.
In a chapter on Freud and his eponymous slip, we learn that the man to whom a cigar was never just a cigar had a formidable intellectual rival, a Viennese philologist named Rudolf Meringer who painstakingly collected thousands of slips and in 1895 published a treatise about them that linguists today consider a seminal work.
To Freud, whose opinions on slips first appeared in an article published in 1901, any blunder, "however seemingly innocuous, hid a secret intention that could be unburied through investigation." But to Meringer, a slip didn't emanate from "some repressed psychic material." His research led him to conclude that slips weren't random, that they adhered to the basic rules of language, and that their source lay not in the speaker but in "the utterance contaminating itself."
This dichotomy still lies at the heart of the debate about slips and disfluencies. Do they have "a mysterious, individual cause" or are they chiefly mechanical, occurring as "the brain shifts from planning to executing"?
"Um..." is filled with toothsome factlets. For example, tying down a person's arm induces blunders while gesturing apparently reduces them. People talking on the phone and people with their hands in their pockets are more likely to be disfluent. In a chapter on presidential blundering, in which President Dubya of course figures prominently, we discover that Thomas Jefferson was "a verbal bungler with a lisp" and that Calvin Coolidge was "the first president with a policy against being quoted verbatim."
Though Mr. Erard covers the spectrum of slips and stumbles with authority, he is less successful at telling us what they mean. This is not entirely his fault, because we still don't know enough about how the brain works and, all too often, the blunderologists can't seem to agree. "Um..." is well researched and at times penetrating, but it falls short of being definitive. We are still left wondering whether our slips reveal something profound about our nature and the nature of language or whether they are merely subliminal glitches, potholes that the brain runs over as it guides the tongue down the treacherous communication highway.
One thing about blunders is certain, though. Misspeaking, Mr. Erard shows persuasively, is normal, and "a verbal blunder is... an indelible mark of humanness."
(Pantheon, 287 pages, $24.95)