What It Means When Your Slip Is Showing

By Michael Erard
Pantheon, 287 pages, $24.95

At a weekly briefing early in his first term, President Calvin Coolidge noticed a reporter taking notes as he spoke.

“Are you writing down in shorthand what I say?” Coolidge inquired, according to a White House stenographer.

“Yes, sir,” the reporter replied.

“Now I don’t think that is right,” Coolidge said. “I don’t object to you taking notes as to what I say, but I don’t quite throw my communications to the conference into anything like finished style or anything that perhaps would naturally be associated with a presidential utterance.”

Weren’t those the days?

The advent of radio and television raised the stakes—and lowered the standards—on both sides of the podium, explains Michael Erard in Um … , his engaging but meandering analysis of the mistakes we make when we speak—what he calls “applied blunderology.”

Mr. Erard was inspired by, and dedicates a full chapter to, the intense scrutiny accorded President George W. Bush’s frequent tussles with English. He places this scrutiny in the context of our increasingly multilingual society and its “simmering anxieties over the connections among language, citizenship, patriotism and belonging.” Fair enough, but “misunderestimate” is also just funny.

This is one of those language books that you think is going to change the way you listen to people (a Note to the Reader warns as much)—and yet I’ve become no more attuned to the ums of the world than I was before. Perhaps this wouldn’t surprise Mr. Erard, who admits that the science of blunderology has always been hindered by the simple fact that our brains screen out the vast majority of both our own and others’ slips. People make one to two errors per thousand words, yet they report noticing only about one a week.

Mr. Erard breaks our blunders down into two general categories: slips of the tongue (“cuff of coffee”) and disfluencies (“um” and “uh”). While slips get almost all the attention in the media and in literature, disfluencies are far more common; by one count, they make up 40 percent of all speech errors. In both cases, the error occurs because the brain is engaged simultaneously in planning and executing. In other words, you’re most likely to blunder when you are trying to think and speak at the same time. (President Bush is, apparently, a very deep thinker.)

Mr. Erard traces the history of blunderology to ancient Egypt, but things don’t really get going until the 19th century, when the Reverend William Spooner at Oxford University was credited with making the distinctive slips—jawfully loined, kinkering congs—that now bear his name. Although virtually all of the most well-known spoonerisms are fabricated, Mr. Erard points out, they nevertheless reflect predictable patterns of the verbal slip: We tend to mess up the first syllable of a word, the stress-carrying syllable, and the initial sound. He also links the fascination with spoonerisms to the rise of the industrial era, when technologies such as the railroad were growing in size and complexity. “In these circumstances,” Mr. Erard notes, “small human errors had larger consequences.”

Freud, naturally, gets his due here: To him, the verbal slip was evidence of an unconscious desire—sexual or otherwise—attempting to express itself. But Mr. Erard gives equal time to another, less famous Viennese professor, Rudolf Meringer, who gathered slips by the thousands and rebutted Freud’s theories ruthlessly and publicly. Meringer believed speech errors said more about the nature of language itself than about the person speaking—and although he never attained the notoriety of Freud, his ideas are much closer to today’s understanding of verbal slips.

A journalist with an M.A. in linguistics and a Ph.D. in English, Michael Erard is clearly enthusiastic about his subject, but he’s given himself a dissertation’s worth of ground to cover. The barrage of studies he cites quickly becomes a blur, especially as the terms and theories change again and again. I would nevertheless have welcomed a brief foray into neuroscience, given how much we’ve learned about the biology and mechanics of the brain even in the past decade.

His main point, however, is an empathic one, and well taken: Verbal blunders are an integral part of speaking—“normal accidents,” as he puts it—and we are all guilty much more than we think.

So what of our beleaguered blunderer in chief? Mr. Erard argues that it’s unfair to single out Mr. Bush as a clumsy speaker, and provides as evidence the following quote: “Uh, I, I, my message is for the, the voters of the country. Uh, I ask for their support. I’m not taking a single vote for, for granted.” The context was the 2000 presidential campaign, and the speaker was Al Gore.


Jesse Wegman is managing editor of The Observer.

What It Means When Your Slip Is Showing