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.


  1. Your ire is dire, indeed, if you long for Mr. Safire’s return! (Sorry about the ire/dire thing; it just came out.)

  2. He also writes, “Punnery, to coin a word, is largely the trick of compacting two or more ideas within a single word or expression.” OK, but a) the word is quite common and b) he already wrote a book with the word in its title (as I found out immediately by googling the word).

  3. He’s probably been saying and writing “Punnery, to coin a word…” for fifty years.

  4. I mostly agree with your sentiment. But there is a place in the world for entertainers such as Lederer and Safire. I have grown past them, but my interest in language was first sparked by writers such as these. I have recently started listening to the podcast version of Lederer’s show, which is very cheesy, but just the kind of light mental fluff I need when doing chores.

  5. […] published bloopers are as reliably authentic as the letters columns in porn magazines.

    Ah, what a simile! While Dan Brown is writing novels professionally, too ;-).

  6. Want bloopers? Teach English in Southeast Asia. 😉

  7. Hey, I taught English in Taiwan — I’ve had my fill, thanks!

  8. Richard Hershberger says

    I agree with jhn about Lederer, but not Safire. Lederer is at best empty fluff, but he is not mean-spirited and he conveys a sense of fun about language. I find his material uninteresting but harmless. Safire on his best days is merely uninteresting, and on his less good days has the supercilious mean streak common to pop language commentators. He isn’t a rabid dog in the manner of John Simon or Robert Hartwell Fiske, but this is a difference of degree rather than of kind. Yes, we would all much rather see a language columnist with something interesting and sensible to say (and here’s a shout-out to Jan Freeman at the Globe) but we can do much worse than Richard Lederer.

  9. Ozzie Maland says

    Barry Popik has kvetched about uncredited borrowings by fellow ADS-member Safire repeatedly; eg:
    [excerpt: …This week, William Safire’s column discusses “Gotcha!”–something he’s done before. Yet he neglects to mention my important work on “Gotcha!” that I posted here on 4-4-2000. This goes with my work on “La-La-Land” and “Put Up Or Shut Up” and “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff”–my work will simply never be mentioned…]

  10. The “clipper” quote definitely shows up in Anguished English, and has been circulated online endlessly in that history of the world according to student bloopers.
    One of my college professors liked to cite an exam she once graded which talked about how the Egyptians wrote in “hieroglitches” and the Mesopotamians in “cunniform.”

  11. Is Lederer annoying because he thinks he knows about language but doesn’t (that well)? How did Safire get that column? I’m an admitted simplistic language-lover, but I wouldn’t mind having Safire’s gig.

  12. Is Lederer annoying because he thinks he knows about language but doesn’t (that well)?
    Exactly. And he’s more annoying than some because he allegedly has a graduate degree in the subject, which means he should know better. Nothing against him personally—he’s an enjoyable writer and people are willing to pay him for what he writes, so more power to him—but the fact that he’s accepted as a “language expert” is a sad commentary on the general understanding of language and linguistics, which is about on a par with the general understanding of physics 500 years ago.
    How did Safire get that column?
    No idea. There’s a fairly detailed biographical interview here, but it mentions the language column only in passing. All I know is he’s been writing it since 1979 and has learned very little in the intervening years.

  13. As a native of New Hampshire I had to listen to Lederer blather on WEVO (our public radio station) for years. I think LH has him pegged perfectly. I suppose Lederer is mostly harmless, but it strikes me that most of his jokes are designed to provoke smug feelings of superiority in his readers.

  14. mark clark says

    Speaking of ‘On Language,’ the previous week’s guest column by Jack Rosenthal suggested a “probable” phrase origin that seems hardly plausible:
    “From classical times forward, orators have remembered the major points of speeches by using the ‘method of loci.’ One visualizes walking through the rooms of a ‘memory palace’ and associates the next point to be addressed with each successive room or tapestry. This method is probably why we now use the expression ‘in the first place.’

  15. Sheesh.

  16. By the way, who’s forcing you to read the stuff?

  17. A man comes from the Times every Sunday and stands over me with a gun. Why won’t they let me be, those bastards? Why??

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