An autumnal harvest of bloopers

Published 6:00 am Friday, November 12, 2021

Language and the multiple ways we use and misuse it continue to fascinate many of us. In these days of advanced technologies, digital communications, spell-checkers and automatic editors, one might expect mistakes, misspellings and grammatical errors to be endangered species at risk of extinction, but that is not the case. And all of this provides us a ringside seat at the continually evolving, incredibly complex phenomenon of language and the tension between standard language and its rules or conventions and the much freer flowing reality of speech combined with a common tendency to partially recall or even confuse similar pairs of words.

In a recent medical documentary on PBS, one of the participants spoke of “underlining medical issues” that can provide clues to aid in a successful diagnosis. Could it be that “underline” and “underlining” are more frequently used than “underly” and “underlying?” And a student paper noted that the “harm that pesticides inflect has been denied for many years now.” It called to mind an image of pesticides acting as covert grammatical agents, responsible for malevolently attaching verb endings and other encoded grammatical information.

It is often the case that older words and phrasings can be difficult to recall accurately because their use is often restricted to specific phrases. One may have read or heard these words, but they aren’t used frequently. An example of this is the word “array” meaning a “display” and is most often used in the expression “wide array.” I was reading an essay not long ago and saw that the student author wrote that “the people in the country experienced a wide arrangement of complications.” It would appear that the student is far more familiar with the word “arrangement” than the less common “array.” In an episode of a fairly popular reality show that follows a celebrity who becomes a farmer, one of the cast commented that “people are a bit bermused by the show.” This, of course, is an incorrect recall of the word “bemused” meaning “puzzled” or “bewildered,” which is now far less commonly used than “amused” or “bewildered.”

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Sometimes words or phrases from an older stage of the language preserve cultural aspects that no longer exist in the modern era. Without a connection to or understanding of the original concept, it can be difficult to use the idea metaphorically. A student who was trying to explain his apprehension over an upcoming event wrote, “I was worried it would be a kind of menstrual show, a caricature of the real thing.” The unfortunate choice of word here lends a completely unintended meaning to an idea that the student hoped to phrase in a new and creative way. Recently I was looking at different travel blogs and found a description of Roman baths in a small city in Spain. The author’s description of one of the photos carried the following suggestion, “Imagine these baths filled with the who’s of who of society.” Again, the phrase “who is who” or “who’s who” has been inaccurately modified.

Spelling is now particularly subject to the capricious whims of spell-checkers and text-editors. I was initially bemused and later amused (although that was not my first reaction) to receive an e-mail from one of my advisees, who is normally very polite, that read “Hey, mama. I need to drop my language class.” I ignored the casual and overly familiar salutation “hey” and the unsettling form of address “mama” and wrote to offer my help to which he replied, “Yes, mama.” At this point, I realized his text editor was changing his spelling of “ma’am” to the more common, yet more potentially problematic (at least when addressing his Spanish professor) “mama.” Poor guy. He was understandably mortified when he realized all of this. And we’ve gotten along well ever since.

JULIA PALMER is an associate professor of modern languages at Hampden-Sydney College. Her email address is