In the blunderful world of bloopers, crimes and misdemeanors against the English language go unpunished, but not unpublished, often in my Anguished English series. Although my name appears on the covers of those books, I am not truly their author. My anthologies of accidental assaults upon our language are really created by legions of bloopists who fabricate wacky words, lacerated lingo, ridiculous rhetoric, ditzy diction, fractured phrases, eviscerated expressions, idiotic idioms, mislocated modifiers, mixed-up metaphors, skewed and skewered syntax, and other verbal vagaries. None of these unwitting contributors is a relative of yours, of course.
Some people are bird-watchers. I watch word-botchers. Over the years I've cobbled together five anthologies of fluffs and flubs, goofs and gaffes, blunders, boo-boos, botches, boners, and bloopers. They're the fuel that runs the motor of my career as a fly-by-the-roof-of-the-mouth, word-struck, word-besotted, word-bethumped language guy.
I adhere firmly to the Blooper Snooper's Code of Ethics--that the collector takes what he or she finds and contrives nothing. My specimens are all genuine, certified, and unretouched. No way could I concoct the vivid headline GRANDMOTHER OF EIGHT MAKES HOLE IN ONE. No way could I improve the receptionist's voice-mail advice "Please leave a message. The doctors are out of the office or else on the phone and me, too." No way could I come close to matching the student who wrote, "The equator is an imaginary lion that runs around the world forever" or the politician who protested to a reporter, "Your question is much too suppository!" These masterpieces of mangled messages are far funnier than anything I could fabricate from whole cloth, even cloth with a lunatic fringe.
Why do readers so delight 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 just past the reach of the infielders. Just as bloopers in baseball can make fielders look like bumbling clowns, verbal bloopers can mortify those who make them. Almost at the same time, the verb to bloop began to signify the operating of a radio set to cause it or other sets to emit 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 once wrote, "Birds are entangled by their feet and men by their tongues." The humor and appeal ofbloopers lie, in part, in our awareness of our vulnerability, especially our tendency to trip over our tongues. It is the very artlessness of linguistic lapses that makes them so endearing and makes us feel superior. We laugh when we see and hear verbal rugs pulled out from under someone else. After all, we would never commit such blunders--or would we?
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. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who was a champion college wrestler, wrestled with this shining piece of philosophy as he analyzed Iraq's cache of weapons of mass destruction: "There are known knowns. These are things that we know we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know." California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently explained, "I think that gay marriage is something that should be between a man and a woman." Gray Davis, the governor whom Arnold replaced, 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." Ah, how the mighty have fallen--usually on their mouths.
The best bloopers inspire the kind of bisociative thinking we experience with puns. But while plays on words exploit the density of language, any denseness residing in bloopers is accidental. Arizona State University humorologists Donald F. and Aileen Pace Nilsen 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.
I am often asked, "Do you spend all day reading newspapers, magazines, essays, and signs?" Au contraire. I rely on the kindness of total strangers. Sure, I happen to happen on some items myself: A student of mine actually did write, "Romeo's last wish was to be laid by Juliet." But the vast bulk of the rough-and-bumble thud and blunder I publish is sent me by a conspiracy of fellow blooper snoopers from (to mix a metaphor) the four corners of the globe. Just as a certain kind of person walks through a field with eyes peeled for four-leaf clovers, blooper snoopers trek through newspapers, magazines, and books looking for petty crimes and misdemeanors against our language.
Many of these verbal hunter-gatherers wing me mere grammar errors that do not qualify as bloopers: "To be sure, his investments in the media giants wasn't enough to give him editorial control." "Bush knows he can count on Kissinger, who shares he and Dick Cheney's passion for secrecy." The singular form wasn't in the first example and the nominative he in the second constitute nonstandard usage, but faulty grammar doth not a blooper make. No double entendres (or "double Nintendos," as somebody once blipped) exist here.
I also receive gifts of gaffes that simply aren't funny: "The State Department is understandably loathe to abandon the noble tradition of U.S. leadership in those endeavors." "Following the tenants of both the Zone Diet and the American Heart Association, Balance for Life provides three meals a day plus snacks." In these artifacts we may recognize that loathe should be loath and tenants should be tenets, but these inadvertent substitutions do not conjure up any wiggy images that detonate stomachs into a rolling boil.
Every now and then I am granted strings of bright verbal pearls, such as these 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 many-faceted jewels such as these, 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 that gleamed out from a student essay: "Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a hundred-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 malapropizing of circumnavigate and accidental pun on clipper can beget such nautical naughtiness. This creation is one of the greatest bloopers ever blooped.
WORD WIZARD. Copyright © 2006 by Richard Lederer. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.