As I wrote in a previous post, I have a stack of books I’ve been wanting to talk about for months; having been derailed by moving, work, and various other trivia, I’m finally getting back to them, and the one I most want to talk about is Michael Erard’s Um. . .: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. Erard got a master’s degree in linguistics before going into journalism, and it shows; he’s one of the few reporters who consistently gets linguistic stuff right (I’ve quoted him a number of times, e.g. here and here). He writes knowledgeably and with verve, packing in fascinating bits of information on each page, which is one reason I’ve been sitting on it for so long—I keep putting it down to think about and investigate the things he brings up.
He starts off by talking about one of the most famous blunderers, Reverend Spooner, pointing out that “he didn’t make as many verbal blunders as are attributed to him” and of those he did make “very few were ‘true’ spoonerisms.” He goes on to a much more important topic, Freud and the “Freudian slip.” He provides a detailed dissection of one of Freud’s most famous examples, the case of the young man who tried to quote Vergil’s line “Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor” (‘May someone rise, an avenger, from my bones’) but said “ex nostris” and omitted the word aliquis—for Freud, an extremely significant slip that stemmed from the man’s fear that his lover was pregnant. Erard then cites an Italian critic of Freud, the philologist Sebastiano Timpanaro, who points out that omitting a less important word like aliquis ‘someone’ is a perfectly normal speech error, that an error in a foreign language can hardly be analyzed as if it were in one’s native tongue, and that if you take the Freudian attitude you could provide “insightful” interpretations no matter which word was left out. This warmed my anti-Freudian heart. He then brings up Rudolf Meringer, another philologist, who was “one of the first scientists to show that speech errors are worth collecting and classifying” and the first to use slips “to get a handle on language”; he made a habit of copying slips made by fellow professors at dinner gatherings, eventually collecting 8,800 of them and classifying them as “anticipations,” “perseverations,” and so on. Modern linguists, including Rulon Wells and R.J. Simonini, Jr., started studying slips in the 1950s.
In Chapter 5 he gives “A Brief History of ‘Um’,” explaining that he started by assuming that the condemnation of “filler words” went all the way back to the ancients but found that it didn’t really begin until the 19th century (Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote “Don’t strew the pathway with those dreadful urs” in 1846) and didn’t become popular until the 20th; as he says in this interview, “one of the important aspects of the radio performance was to remove the ‘uhs’ and the ‘ums’—I think because it didn’t sound right somehow. But there was also the fact that the radio broadcasts were commercial. They were selling things, selling advertising on the radio, and the ‘uhs’ or the ‘ums’ would take up valuable time that you could use to sell pet food and mattresses and whatever other sorts of sponsorships.”
I could go on indefinitely, but I’ll conclude with his admirable repudiation of the use of nonstandard speech to bash those you don’t like: “Liberals shouldn’t talk about speaking this way—it contradicts how they work to include everybody and make sure that everyone has equal opportunity.” Amen. And if you’re looking for a present for someone who loves language, I can recommend this one with complete confidence.


  1. I must mention here the most amazing speech error I have ever heard of, published by Victoria Fromkin: *Rosa always date shranks for Rosa always dated shrinks. How astonishing that is: the past-tense morpheme -ed disappears from the verb and is attached to its object, which is then treated as a token of the homonymous irregular verb shrink, yet the verbed noun still continues to bear the noun plural morpheme -s.

  2. aldiboronti says:

    You’ve thoroughly whetted my appetite. This book goes straight to the top of my Christmas wish list!

  3. He then brings up Rudolf Meringer […] who […] made a habit of copying slips made by fellow professors at dinner gatherings, eventually collecting 8,800 of them and classifying them as “anticipations,” “perseverations,” and so on.
    I wonder whether said professors found it stressful, and if so whether that stress affected their speech errors at all.

  4. What about those who don’t want to include everybody?

  5. A journalist who quotes italian classical philologists is not something you see everyday. I look forward to beading this sook!

  6. I know what it means, but just for thrills I Googled ‘perseveration’– The first result was the now-typical Google->Wikipedia handoff. I was somewhat surprised to find that Wikipedia didn’t mention what I think of as two classic examples: Parkinson’s disease and childhood (e.g., the five-year old who asks the same question over and over and over and over again…)

  7. Someone should do a study of internet writing errors. I make four kinds that I can think of: editing errors, finger slips (neither very interesting), a number of repeated typing errors which seem to be automatic, unconscious typing subprograms (e.g. “not” repeatedly for “no”), and certain kinds of phonetic errors (“and” for “an” before a vowel: “and orphan”.) And autofill errors.
    Sometimes I will type a long, completely wrong word which begins with the same sounds as the one I want — a combination of the phonetic type and the unconscious-typing-program type. These can be pretty stupid-looking.
    I’ve seen “and” for “an” in others’ posts.

  8. I fear Germany is turning me non-Rhotic; a regular and relatively new mistake for me in the last year is ‘you’ for ‘your’. Oh, and I get the voicedness of trailing consonants wrong more.
    (This is in English; my mistakes in Spanish and German, the two other languages I’m typing most in lately, are much more boring and frequent.)

  9. My on-line writing errors often tend to be mix-ups of two different phrases– I recently wrote that ‘ … [such-and-such] is a somewhat dicey.’ which is a mixture of ‘… is somewhat dicey.’ and ‘… is a somewhat dicey argument.’ It’s just hard to read and edit on-line prose.

  10. . . . I enjoy lovable language blunders, and here I feel obligated to share some of my sweetheart’s most-inspired efforts. Despite her command of English (she’s not a native speaker), she sometimes doesn’t get new idioms exactly right.
    When very nervous about something, she’s “a basket of cakes.”
    She criticizes me for “living in pig-style.”
    Doesn’t understand why anyone would send their poor puppy to “beatings school.”
    She also mentions how people go “apeshaped” because they’re so angry, and she always talks about “when push comes to shovel . . .” If a problem is escalating, one should “nip it on the butt.”
    My favorite was when her friend back home sent her a cassette of local hits around the time of her birthday. She listened to it on a Walkman all day, singing with great pleasure. Later that night, she said her friend surprised her by adding a version of “Happy Birthday,” sung by a famous whore. This seemed a bit surprising – “A whore?.” “Yes, a very famous old whore, probably 100 years old. If we ever visit my city, I will make you go see this whore and you will have a really good time.”
    Of course, she meant “choir.”

  11. Some of John’s examples made me think eggcorn, eggcorn, eggcorn. They make perfect sense. I know it was very late that I realised you nip things in the bud … prolly around the same time I discovered that the ‘l’ in ‘salmon’ is silent.
    The typing errors (aside from just poor spelling) I’m most aware of in myself are: confusing ‘ee’ and ‘ea’ (I don’t know how many times I’ve talked of drinking bears …), mixing up ‘c’, ‘s’ and z, because voicing doesn’t come easy to me (so some trouble with the stops too, occassionally) and ‘-ting’ for ‘-thing’ because my Danish interferes.
    I type very little in Danish these days, so when I do it’s at at most half the speed of English, because certain patterns (graphemes?) are hardwired into my hands by now so I end up deleting and deleting and deleting. Depressing really.

  12. The comment about radio seems rather absurd. A radio show has predefined timing slots for ads, so nobody’s worrying that the ‘ums’ might take time from them. ‘Ums’ are avoided for the same reason as in any other sort of public speech – simply because they make the listener’s attention slip away.

Speak Your Mind