It happens about every 10 words the ums, uhs, you knows the verbal placeholders we use while our minds race ahead of our tongues, the verbal gaffes like substituting interweb for Internet or replacing loofah with falafel (as commentator Bill O'Reilly is rather famously alleged to have done in a telephone call). Armed with a master's degree in linguistics and a doctorate in English, author Michael Erard lumps a variety of faux pas under the heading of disfluencies in Um. . . Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, which makes them sound more remarkable than most of them really are. Our verbal miscues are plentiful and inevitable, but only occasionally riotous or ruinous. If we're really lucky, like the notorious Rev. William Spooner, not only will actual blunders (such as exalting God as a shoving leopard ) bring us fame, but invented ones such as a camel passing through the knee of an idol will be ascribed to us, enhancing our renown.

Viennese professor Rudolf Meringer's famed battles with Sigmund Freud over the cause of Fehlleistung (literally faulty performance, now widely known as Freudian slips ) are documented in detail here, as is the cross-cultural nature of the vocal glitch. In the Wichita tongue, for instance, the word kaakiri, or something, takes the place of uh, and similar verbal tics can be detected even in sign language. From Mrs. Malaprop, whose penchant for garbled speech in the 1775 play The Rivals has given us the catchall word for verbal blunders, to President George W. Bush, whose so-called dubyaspeak has given rise to such howlers as 2004's This is a historic moment in history, as far as I'm concerned, Erard deftly picks his way through a junkyard of spoken debris to inform, enlighten and entertain in equal measure.

Verbal blunderologists swarm among us like birdwatchers in spring, and we are all unwitting targets for their nets. So be forewarned: Um is a mystery you won't want to hiss, and if you do, may sod rest your goal.

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