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Saturday, June 5, 2010

35. From the Archives 1. Whoops! The just plain stupid things we write and say

First, a word about From the Archives.

Over the many years that I've been writing I've churned out millions of words: stories, poems, songs, feature articles, sketches, parodies ...

I've decided to add them to my blog from time to time, so that crevices in time includes not only contemporary stuff, but also includes stuff produced over the past 40 or so year. I wrote this first article sometime in the late 1990s. I can still picture the beginnings of the article: I was travelling on a train at 7 in the morning on my way from Eltham, where I lived (and live) to Frankston, where I was teaching Professional Writing. This first item - Whoops! - was published on
Triond in February, 2008.

The just plain stupid things we write and say

We’re all guilty of it at some time or other – we open our mouth and put our foot in it. These small human failings go by various names: howlers, bloopers, idiotisms. But whatever name we give them, these not -so bon mots give rise to two reactions: embarrassment for the speaker (or writer) and riotous laughter for the listener or reader.

Radio and TV programs devoted to “bloopers” – the name such errors have been given in those industries – chronicle the frailty of the human tongue – the capacity of news presenters, interviewers, actors and the like to get things wrong.

For many years, it was quite common for newspapers to print what were termed “schoolboy howlers”. Such articles often appeared in January newspapers, and were gleaned from the examination scripts of students who, in the heat of a two or three hour exam, managed to get the pen into motion before properly engaging the brain. Gems like:

The rhythem of the Bible is usually unrhyming Diameters.
A metaphor is a thing you shout through.
And he said, “What shall I do to inherit interal life?”
Poetry is when every line starts with a capital letter.
William the Conqueror was thrown from his horse, and wounded in the feudal system, and died from it.

There is sometimes a certain joy in seeing people make fools of themselves publicly. In Australia there is a well known TV Sports commentator named Sandy Roberts. He managed to produce one of the all time greats of the blooper genre. The Melbourne Cup is Australia’s most prestigious horse race, and one of its most lucrative. In Australia, it is known as “the race that stops the nation”, and that’s a pretty apt description; in the mid afternoon of the first Tuesday in November each year, Australia comes to a virtual standstill as people tune in their radios to listen to the broadcast of the race, or sit down to watch this spectacular event on the television.

In 1980, Sandy Roberts stood up in front of the nearly 100,000 people at the race track, and an audience of millions of television viewers and radio listeners, to introduce the 1980 Miss Australia, a young women with the unfortunate name of Susan Dick. Sandy Robert’s managed to stun the nation, however, when he began:
‘May I introduce the winner of the 1980 Miss Australia contest, Miss Australia herself: Susan Cock.’

Politicians, perhaps because they are in the public gaze so often, and are so prone to giving speeches, inevitably blunder from time to time. But Dan Quayle, vice president of America during early 1990s, managed to produce idiotisms on almost every occasion that he spoke publicly. Such was his outstanding achievement in this regard that whole websites have been established that are devoted to recording for posterity Dan Quayle’s unrivalled capacity to produce inanities. Here are a couple to whet your appetite:

It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.
One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president, and that one word is `to be prepared’.

As Quayle once observed:
When you make as many speeches and you talk as much as I do and you get away from the text, it’s always a possibility to get a few words tangled here and there.

Of course, Quayle is not alone in this. Indeed, some would argue that the current (soon to be immediate past) president of the US, George W Bush has surpassed Quayle’s extraordinary capacity for garbled nonsense. Pontificating on the state of literacy – or rather, illiteracy – GWB inadvertently proved the very point he was making with the following:

The illiteracy level of our children are appalling. Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?

Peter Sellars once satirized poli-speak in a sketch which lampoons the pompous, ponderous pointlessness of much Party political propaganda:
“Let me begin by saying that I do not consider existing conditions likely. On the contrary, I regard them as matters of the gravest significance…”

The English language, in the hands – or rather, on the tongues – of non-native English speakers can give rise to some extraordinary word pictures. A few years back, a list appeared on the Net composed of signs from around the world – the world on non-English speaking countries.

A sign posted in Germany’s Black Forest:

It is strictly forbidden on our black forest camping site that people of
different sex, for instance, men and women, live together in one tent unless
they are married with each other for that purpose.
In a Vienna hotel:
In case of fire, do your utmost to alarm the hotel porter.

Whoops! is an irregular column, devoted to exploring the mangulation of the language – unearthing the mistakes, the bloopers, the howlers, the grammatical ineptitudes in the hope that such errors will be avoided in the times to come. Whoops! is devoted to creating a better, brighter linguistic future. As George W B once said: I think we agree, the past is over.

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