UM... by Michael Erard
Kirkus Star


Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean
Age Range: 1844 - 1930
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It’s eminently normal in speech to slip and blunder and self-correct and elide and, um, well, like, you know…

Texas-based journalist Erard summarizes the history of scholarly and popular interest in verbal slips and offers some disinterested insight into the current passion for parsing (and reproving) our president’s speech. After telling us his analysis is “a work of applied blunderology,” the author zips back in time to introduce William Archibald Spooner (1844–1930), the Oxford don whose legendary—and in some cases apocryphal—blunders gave us spoonerisms (“queer old dean” instead of “dear old queen”). Erard moves on to explain Freudian slips, declaring that slips are “about as ubiquitous as ants at a picnic” in the speech of even the most fluent and educated. The average person commits about one blunder per thousand spoken words, with the very young and the very old being somewhat more prone to error. Much of what Erard learned from research and from the many interviews he conducted is counterintuitive. Nervous people do not say “um” more than calm people, and such pauses actually are signs of thinking, not a lack of it. Pure fluency, even in prepared remarks, is virtually impossible. Perhaps the most interesting chapter is “A Brief History of ‘Um’.” The author perused books on public speaking all the way back to Aristotle and found no condemnations of “um” and its dilatory relatives until fairly recently; he believes radio’s advent in the 1920s prepared the way for our current insistence on verbal perfection. Erard examines our subsequent fondness for bloopers and outtakes, retreats a bit to deplore—uh, explore—malapropisms and even finds time for a nifty allusion to Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” His chapter on President Bush examines how Dubya’s supporters and detractors variously view his slips.

A lascinating fook at yet another revealing instance of human imperfection.

Pub Date: Aug. 21st, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-375-42356-7
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2007