When language laughs at our attempts to make use of it
They’re a writer’s nightmare, call them what you will: misprints, literals, typos, errata, printer’s devils. (Actually a printer’s devil is not a printer’s devil in the sense that many who use the term think it is. A printer’s devil, correctly, is not a typographical error, but a young apprentice to a printer. So those who point out a printer’s devil in a text are themselves committing an oral ‘printer’s devil’, which is prosaic irony of a sort).During the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, a sub-editor in The Statesman was summarily sacked when a front-page report of starvation deaths bore the footnote “More good news on Page 7”, instead of “More food news…”
The newspaperman who recounted this story to me, years later, confessed that he himself lived in fear of a similar semantic short-circuit, only in his case the problem word was ‘public’. He was convinced that on a fateful morning after the night before when he’d been on duty, he’d open the paper and there would be the banner headline “Massive Turn-Out At Public Rally”. And, inevitably, the ‘I’ in ‘public’ would be missing.
His fears never materialised. But the suspense of living under the sword of Damocles of that dangling ‘I’ drove him to a peptic ulcer and premature retirement in Cochin. Typos are terrible when they happen; almost worse when they don’t.
In 1631, Robert Barker and Martin Lucas,printers to Charles I, published an edition of the Bible in which the word ‘not’ was inadvertently left out of the seventh commandment, causing it to exhort: “Thou shalt commit adultery.” It became an instant bestseller with the enthusiastically lay public, till spoilsport officialdom recalled the entire print run.
Those who sup with the so-called ‘printer’s devil’ often use a long Spoonerism. Proposing a toast to the monarch, the eponymous warden of New College, Oxford, must have caused both eyebrows and glasses to rise when he announced “To the queer old Dean!”, a reference not to the president of the faculty gaily emerging from the closet but a transposed salutation to the dear old Queen Empress.
To reduce such slips of the pun to a mechanistic Freudianism would be both anachronistic and unfair. They belong to that larger genre of inspired malapropisms that might be called Humpty-Dumptyisms, after the Looking Glass character who declared: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
But saying what one means isn’t quite the same as meaning what one says, as discovered by the sub-editor who having given the headline “Nanda decides to keep mum”, had it cut out, pasted on a postcard and returned to him by the cricket commentator Pearson Surita who’d added the postscript, “Dad furious”.
Some years ago, a kerfuffle was created in the august precincts of the TOI by a third edit. The piece, entitled “Watch The Birdie”, made repeated references to our “feathered friends”, which as several readers pointed out in letters to the editor was passing strange in that the creatures under discussion were dolphins. This happened considerably before I joined the paper. But lest I sound smug, let me add that for years I used ‘ungaily’ instead of ‘ungainly’, resisting all efforts at correction on the grounds that ‘ungaily’ sounded more ungainly than “ungainly’.
Mumpsimus—defined by the dictionary as a verbal error which persists even after exposure—is an infectious disease of the mot. But where does the germ originate? In us, or in that vast, perversely intractable, self-generating and self-renewing organism, with a life of its own quite independent of ours, that we call language and which delights in cocking a snook at us when we least expect it to.
Watching the old ships in harbour, James Elroy Flecker wondered that the ancient timbers were not alive to the pristine impulse of root and sap and half expected: “To see the mast burst open with a rose,/ And the whole deck put on its leaves again.” Journeymen carpenters that we are, we chop the golden bough of language into the lumber of words with which to fashion argosies that, mid-voyage, confound us by erupting into irrepressible, irreverent foliage, flouting the narrow designs we seek to impose on the living wood.
Looking up at the heavens, a science fiction writer imagined the sky to be a dark canopy pierced by stars through which shone the all-encompassing effulgence that lay beyond. Perhaps that’s the best way to look at them—typos, literals, howlers, verbal gaffes of all descriptions, as winking pinpoints of a luminous laughter mocking the myopia of our prolix self-importance.
Writer, columnist and author of several books