- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Pantheon; First Edition edition (August 21, 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0375423567
- ISBN-13: 978-0375423567
- Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 21 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,001,216 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Um.: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean Hardcover – August 21, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Journalist and language expert Erard believes we can learn a lot from our mistakes. He argues that the secrets of human speech are present in our own proliferating verbal detritus. Erard plots a comprehensive outline of verbal blunder studies throughout history, from Freud's fascination with the slip to Allen Funt's Candid Camera. Smoothly summarizing complex linguistic theories, Erard shows how slip studies undermine some well-established ideas on language acquisition and speech. Included throughout are hilarious highlight reels of bloopers, boners, Spoonerisms, malapropisms and eggcorns. The author also introduces interesting people along the way, from notebook-toting, slip-collecting professors to the devoted members of Toastmasters, a public speaking club with a self-help focus. According to Erard, the aesthetic of umlessness is a relatively new development in society originating alongside advents in mechanical reproduction, but it may be on its way out already. Take President Bush, who exemplifies that the quirky casual, whether it is intentional or spontaneous, can inspire more trust than the slick and polished. Erard closes by examining our own propensity toward verbal missteps, demonstrating how the interpretation of blunders is inextricable from social expectations. While Erard's conclusion that meaning is socially and historically embedded may not be unfamiliar, his work challenges the reader to think about his or her own speech in an entirely new way. (Aug.)
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Praise for Um . . .
“Some people are bird watchers and learn a great deal about the birds they watch. Michael Erard watches word botchers and, in the process, enriches our experience of what language is about and what makes us human. After reading Um…, you'll never hear the thud and blunder of everyday speech in the same way.”
–Richard Lederer, author of Anguished English
“Who'd have thought that a book called Um could be a page-turner? But Michael Erard's investigtions of "applied blunderology" come to something more than the familiar catalogues of verbal slips and gaffes from the high and the low. It's also a fascinating meditation on why blunders happen, and what they tell us about language and ourselves. At its deepest level, Um is an exercise in the zen of attention, which tunes us in to the revealing noises and pauses that we spend most of our time tuning out.”
–Geoffrey Nunberg, NPR commentator
“A lascinating fook at yet another revealing instance of human imperfection.”
–Kirkus (Starred Review)
“Included troughout are hilarious highlight reeks of bloopers, boners, spoonerisms, malapropisms, and 'eggcorns'... His work challenges the reader to think about his or her own speech in an entirely new way."
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presents the latest scientific thought on the meaning of blunders in
speech, but in a lively style that engages and entertains. He covers not
only pause fillers, like the one he has enshrined in his two-letter title,
but also slips (Freudian and otherwise), spoonerisms, malapropisms,
sentence repairs and restarts, the Bloopers immortalized by Kermit Schafer
and those unintentional bits of comic relief that graced the speeches of
George W. Bush. The book is in various parts history, introduction to
linguistics and journalistic narrative.
Here are just a few of the surprises that struck me. Our disdain for "uh",
"um" and similar pause fillers in speech is a recent thing, probably mainly
the result of the invention of audio recording and radio. Thomas
Jefferson, one of the most eloquent writers of his day, was a lousy public
speaker. Most pause fillers and other speech disfluencies go unnoticed,
and this is especially so when the speaker is saying something interesting
or engaging. Here's a striking example, not from the book but from my own
experience: I just noticed a speech disfluency of the sentence repair type
in M.L. King's "I have a dream" speech. It's barely noticeable, a trivial
ripple in the tsunami of oratorical power that is that speech. If you've
never noticed it and are curious: "When we allow freedom ring... when we
let it ring..."
Erard's advice to those who worry about botching a speech: be interesting!
A recurring theme throughout the book is that pause fillers have meaning
and serve a useful purpose. They tell the listener something about what is
going on in the mind of the speaker: that the sentence is not yet finished,
or that the subject is difficult and demands effort (in speaking and
listening), or that a change in emphasis or subject is coming, or that the
speaker has detected an error and is struggling to fix it.
I recently encountered a practical example of this. I was putting together
for my family a video about our mother. For part of the sound track I
wanted to use an old audio recording of her telling her life story. She
tends to wander in her speech and go off on tangents that lead nowhere, so
I had to do some digital audio editing. In one of those places the edited
version contained a transition, a slight change of subject, that sounded
glaringly unnatural and obviously edited. From another part of the
recording I snipped out one of her "But um..." pause fillers and dropped it
into that awkward transition, and POOF! The awkwardness vanished. I doubt
I would have thought of that trick had I not read this book.
Erard recognizes the aspirations of English teachers and business leaders, but suggests their goals may be permanently out of our reach. Even the best rehearsed actor makes occasional slips. To err is human. Speech is necessarily broken, punctuated by hesitation, delays, multiple starts, slips of the tongue, bloopers, slips and blunders. Electrical shock, beer, and Toastmasters can help to reduce, although not to eliminate the "mistakes."
Freud saw human errors, slips of the tongue, as peep-holes into the unconscious. Dark, unappeasable drives for pleasure and pain inevitably push through the veneer of civilization to hint at thoughts we are scarcely willing to tell ourselves. Freud's insights established the profession of psychoanalysis that thrives by listening for unintended meanings in speech. Erard considers the psychoanalytic perspective and discards it in favor of more parsimonious explanations offered by linguists and cognitive psychologists, supported by more objective research methods.
Cognitive theory suggests that thinking, speaking, and the translation of thought into speech are different processes. Parallel processing is hard. Errors arise when these processes bump into each other. The errors provide clues about the elementary mechanisms, inputs and outputs of the processes. Like a pilot on a transcontinental flight, Erard surveys the scientific territory from 30,000 feet, making what could have been a dusty exercise in map reading into something more entertaining. It helps that slips of the tongue are innately humorous. Spoonerisms, malapropisms, mondegreens, and eggcorns, are fun, in addition to what they tell linguists. Readers with literary interests, may also notice that writers use slips as an ingredient of authentic or colloquial dialogue.
Erard points out that speaking naturally has persuasive potential. The smooth tongued, oily orator sounds insincere. The person who hesitates, repeats and slips while getting the message across sounds genuine, trustworthy, and thoughtful. Hollywood actors cultivate authenticity. TV commercials show actors who talk like "us." Corporate CEOs and presidents cultivate a folksy, shambling, heartfelt style. Detractors and language purists may see ignorance or corruption of language, but the public feels warmth and trust. Cynics admire a new way of conducting business as usual.
It seems to me that Mahl took advantage of the author purposes: he corrected and reformulated some of his first finding statements, reelaborating them with Erard's help. Anyone else with the same impression?
Erard, the author, makes his case that verbal errors are part of the language. Just yesterday, I heard a BBC commentary state that 'this is a bridge we will have to gulf'. Erard starts with Spooner (now that you are jawfully loined) and shows the development of a theory of slips of the tongue and other, um, errors.
This is a serious linguistic work. If you enjoy indignation at 'these degenerate days', read D-ck C-v-tt and his ilk.