The annoying Richard Lederer, who has a Ph.D. in English and Linguistics from the University of New Hampshire but whose voluminous writings about language place him rather in the amateur class, is (quite appropriately) standing in for William Safire this week at the NY Times Magazine, and his column is about bloopers, a favorite topic of his. As he says, “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.” In the first place, although they are language-related, bloopers are about as cliched a topic as could be imagined; you would think the Times would be approximately as thrilled as they would be with a story about how it’s so hot you can fry an egg on the sidewalk, as our intrepid reporter demonstrates! At any rate, the column illustrates why I lost interest in the subject several decades ago, once I realized that published bloopers are as reliably authentic as the letters columns in porn magazines. Verbal goofs caught in the wild can be very funny, but that happens rarely, and it’s much easier for teachers to make them up during boring stretches. Lederer says solemnly “As a word-bethumped language guy, I adhere firmly to the blooper snooper’s code, taking only what I find and contriving nothing,” but I believe him exactly as much as I believe a teller of tall tales who swears that this really happened. His culminating example is this:
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.
Actually, I have considerable trouble believing that. Furthermore, I’ll bet you money everything in the column is cut-and-pasted from one of his many books. It’s a lazy, useless excuse for a language column, and almost makes me long for Safire’s return from vacation.