I love it when a book on language teaches me a lesson. The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Make Surprising Sense, a guide by Daniel Menaker filled with humorous, elegant word errors, taught me that I’d better slow down and think if I want to catch errors that have eased into English.
The book contains 101 gems of errors that may sneak by copyeditors. To test yourself, see if you can find the errors in this list that Menaker’s found examples inspired. Not every sentence contains an error.
- With 10 inches of rain this month, we are all sobbing wet.
- Singers should let their vocal chords rest before a concert.
- The music waivered from quiet to intense.
- Having only a virtual office would be unchartered waters for us.
- They accused the editors of navel gazing.
- This budget plan doesn’t pass mustard.
- All the curly cues in her writing remind me of my childhood diary.
- This rollercoaster isn’t for the feint of heart.
- She is a shoe-in for re-election.
- What a heart-rendering story!
Did you have to think twice about some of them? In fact, only one sentence stands up to a copyeditor’s scrutiny. Do you know which one?
For his book Menaker did not choose simple typos or wrong words. He collected “ingenious misspellings,” examples that enhance the meaning if we examine them. He provides the derivations of words and explores how the errors came into and enrich our language. For instance:
- In Number 1 (incorrect as is) we should have been “sopping wet,” but the words sopping and sobbing sound similar, and tears are wet. Menaker takes the relationships between sobbing, sopping, and soup much further in a discussion word lovers will savor.
- In Number 2 (incorrect as is) singers should rest their vocal cords, but the musical connotation of chords fits perfectly.
- For Number 3 (incorrect as is) the author states, “‘Waiver’ and ‘waver’ live very close to each other on Option Street, in Maybe City, Alternative County. They both have meanings that involve decision-making.”
- For Number 4 (incorrect as is) Menaker explains that “uncharted waters are almost necessarily waters that are unchartered—without a treaty to govern them.”
- Number 5 is correct as is—the only correct sentence in the list. It doesn’t include Menaker’s error, “naval gazing.” He likes the error because “what is a navel if not a little ship, afloat on the (sometimes vast) ocean of a tummy?”
- Numbers 6 through 10 should be “pass muster,” “curlicues,” “faint of heart,” “shoo-in,” and “heart-rending.” You’ll have to read The African Svelte for the explanations.
Of course, the title The African Svelte would correctly be “The African Veldt.” Menaker found that error so “svelte” itself that he named such word pearls sveltes. Thus the title.
Along with terrific drawings by Roz Chast, wonderful errors fill the book: “feta com plea,” “wet your appetite,” “wanna-bees,” “undo stress” (wouldn’t we all like to do that?), “vast asleep,” “pillow of strength,” “I besiege you,” “no-nothings,” and “cacoughany” (that’s my favorite, although “spreading like wildflowers” is a close second). The errors alone are worth the price of the book ($20.00 in hardcover), especially for writers, copyeditors, and proofreaders, who need to know this stuff.
The discussions of language are bonus material. I enjoyed learning, in the discussion of the error “run the gammot,” that gamut is a name for the musical scale. Now I know where “run the gamut” comes from. I also learned that in “dead ringer” (not “dead wringer”) the word ringer referred to a racehorse that replaced another horse in a race, fooling bettors. Who knew?
Reading The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Make Surprising Sense, you might find yourself racing through some of the discussion to get to the clever errors ahead. Or you might revel in the talk of language and the ways it evolves. I liked the author’s quick menu of English words that derive from other languages (along with his explanation that “Immigrant words from foreign languages meet no barrier except usefulness and usage to gain entry into English, unlike human immigrants into English-speaking nations, who often meet resistance”):
Arabic: admiral, adobe, albatross.
American Indian languages: moccasin, moose, pecan.
Japanese: karaoke, tycoon, hibachi.
Hindi and Urdu: cot, dinghy, cheetah, guru.
African languages: banana, jumbo, zebra, yam.
Norwegian: fjord, ski, salmon.
Tagalog: manila, boondocks.
Menaker also offered a few new words that seem to be sticking: chick lit, staycation, onesie, cyberbully, infotainment, locavore, and guestimate.
His point is that language evolves in many ways. One of those ways is through “sveltes.” Here Menaker shares how mistakes become acceptable, even blessed by the OED:
Acceptability. Through analyzing usage data, the Oxford English Dictionary tries to keep track of this phenomenon, and when the “incorrect”—they don’t use “correct” or “incorrect,” but I do—spelling begins to rival or overtakes the correct one, the OED includes the former mistake as a “valid alternative” to the original spelling of the word. Some examples of the kinds of statistics the dictionary takes into consideration when deciding on “valid alternatives”: For every 97 times “moot point” appears, “mute point” appears 3. “Sleight of hand” to slight of hand,” 85 to 15. . . . And all the way to “strait-laced” giving way to “straight-laced,” 34 to 66.
So, then, the straight-laced OED has pronounced “straight-laced” a valid alternative to “strait-laced.”
I strongly recommend The African Svelte (256 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016) for writers, copyeditors, proofreaders, and people who love language. Get it online or at your favorite “brick and mortal” (a Menaker svelte) bookstore.
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