At a Loss for Words

The average English speaker makes seven to twenty-two slips of the tongue each day and fails to think of the right word another two to four times according to Michael Erard, who explores verbal gaffes in his book Um.

My life validates his research.

In fourth grade, asked to read from a book called Pesky Penelope, I pronounced the heroine’s name the way it looked to me: pen-e-lope, rhymes with cantaloupe. When Mrs. Thomas corrected my pronunciation, I flushed with embarrassment while my cousin Blake laughed so raucously he fell off his chair. I still question his worth.

Then, years later in high school, I was asked to give a speech in church about one of my pioneer ancestors. As always, I discussed the topic with my mother, and she suggested I talk about her great grandmother. I read a brief, handwritten history of our plucky ancestor then wrote and memorized a speech destined to be a humdinger.

On the assigned day, I donned my Sunday best, slicked my bangs and walked to the podium radiating confidence. But when I began by describing how my mother’s great grandmother, Harriet Beecher Stowe, had carried her baby and walked across the plains from Illinois to Salt Lake City, Mom looked startled.

“Do I have bits of breakfast stuck to my teeth?” I wondered, “I brushed them, didn’t I? She’s probably surprised I came up with an attention-getting introduction by myself.”

But when I joined my family after the services, one of Mom’s best friends, a giggling Adele Evans, was saying, “Myrl, I had no idea your great grandmother wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Was that before or after she crossed the plains?” Then they both laughed in an unladylike manner.

My stomach sank; my face flushed; and I earned my status as a snide teenager by thinking, “Well. I may have confused my ancestor Harriet Bradford Simmons with a famous author, but I know better than to guffaw and snort at the mistakes of others while leaving church.”

As a result of misadventures with my wayward tongue, I’m sympathetic when candidate Al Gore assures his audience, “A zebra doesn’t change its spots” or baseball manager Wes Westrum summarizes a close game, “Well, that was a cliff-dweller.”

I’m especially partial to the gaffes of President George W. Bush because he modeled an effective way to handle verbal mishaps. When asked what it was like to be raised in Midland, Texas, he responded, “It was inebriating.” Then, realizing what he’d said, he laughed at himself and repeated his blooper for the amusement of others.

I wish I had used the president’s tactic when the junior high school principal was observing my teaching for the first time and I told my students Romeo and Juliet was a great Shakespearean travesty.

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63 thoughts on “At a Loss for Words

  1. Thank you for the smiles this sunny morning. I think of things like that as memories that will make me smile. It also reminds me that we are not perfect including the President of the United States. Life has a way of making us smile even if it’s years later.
    Reminds me of the time I taught my two-year-old granddaughter the Peter Cotton Tail song while she was visiting for a few days. When my daughter and son-in-law came to pick her up I proudly announced that Michaella had a surprise for them. She started the song of “Here come Peter Cock – in – Tail”. We all still laugh about it to this day and Michaella is now ten years old. She still insists I told her it was cock-in-tale. ☺☺☺☺

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  2. Thanks for the mid-day bit of humor at your expense, Janet. I have made many of these and many times just said something outrageously stupid – like when told my wife that “you don’t even look pregnant, you just look a little bit fat” in an effort to cheer her up. As for the value f your cousin Blake, you might still want to keep an eye on him.

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  3. This is so good on so many levels, Janet! I recall a blooper in a novel I read many years ago, in which the character, reading aloud in class said “is-land” instead of “island”. It seemed hilarious to me at the time. I think the author was Lucy Maud Montgomery…the book might have been Anne of Green Gables. Isn’t it weird, the things we remember?

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    • Thank you, Diane. I agree that when it comes to remembering our minds are odd little critters, picking and choosing the strangest things.Sometimes the complete lyrics to a song I head in my twenties and didn’t particularly like will spring into my mind and linger way too long.

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    • Mispronunciations are so embarrassing. Sometimes I catch myself mispronouncing words I know perfectly well how to pronounce, So I am very forgiving when I hear others do so.

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  4. I agree about Romeo and Juliet. If he’d loved her, he’d have done a better examination. One of my students had a doll of GWB. He brought it to class almost every day. At random intervals (except during exams) like when I was waiting for a student to respond to a question, he’d push a button and GWB would say something. As for me, personally, I’ve adopted stragedy because I think it’s a word that fits most of the situations in which I’ve attempted to employ a strategy. And why — if it’s Penelop-ee pig — didn’t Romeo and Juliet elo-pee? Right? It’s insane.

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  5. “I still question his worth.” By this point in your entry I was laughing so hard I nearly fell out of my chair.

    As an individual who recognizes the unimportance of unimportant details in communication, I read your words with great delight.

    I have never paid much attention to details that aren’t crucial to communication, or functioning, and feel very sorry for the people who are burdened with an overactive sense of propriety, and an underactive imagination, or both. This inattention to irrelevant details always came as a shock to those who required an opponent during my academic career, as although I seemed “spacey” to them, when it came to a confrontation, I had pertinent details at the ready. It was just that I knew the difference.

    I enjoy people who have their priorities straight! Thanks for a great entry.

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    • I really liked this sentence in your comment, Maggie:”…although I seemed “spacey” to them, when it came to a confrontation, I had pertinent details at the ready. It was just that I knew the difference.” I think it summarizes a person interest and worth. I’m glad I know you.

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    • I thought my astute readers would begin to understand my mistake before I pointed it out to them, Kayti. Thanks for letting me know you did. Once I recovered from my snit, my mom and I laughed about it together and did so for many years.

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  6. I’ve done this many times, and have thanked the Gods above just as often that during my dental hygiene working years, I was able to wear a mask and safety glasses. I’m not sure what’s worse: when I make a verbal mistake in front of a patient or when they do and I have difficulty hiding my amusement. Again, I appreciated having a mask. 🙂

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  7. Firstly thank you for the smile which spread across my face as I read. My heart is warm with love and smiles now. But … thank you also for pointing out to me that I’m not the only one who’s mouth will say things my brain doesn’t think about before they pop out of my mouth. It’s good to know I’m in such wonderful company.
    Sending love to you Aunt Beulah. ~ Cobs. x

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  8. I think I’ll have to read “Um”. These days, when the wrong word—or no word—comes to mind I tend to be fearful that it’s the beginning of dementia. But, as your post reminds us, this also happens to school children giving reports. Harriet Beecher Stowe—that’s a good one!

    I wonder if this same trait of making seven to twenty-two slips of the tongue a day is true in other languages? Or is it unique to us English-speakers?

    Thanks for making me smile, Janet!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I was referred to my last year of high school as “Sex River”, in drama we had to perform a play, my character calling out a list of Alberta place-names,Calgary, Okatoks, Sexsmith and Peace River,…not hard to figure what I, in pioneer garb belted out. I love tongues of the slip, your post brought back a fond memory and made me laugh..cheers.

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    • That is a great story, Sheila. I can picture your mistake and the fun that resulted from it. The good thing about writing this post is the discovery that I’m in good company with people whose writing I respect when my errant tongue embarrasses me. Maybe that’s why we prefer the written word?

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  10. OMGoodness, those are too funny. Way to go George W. That’s the way to handle it for sure. A friend in college who was high-school aged and brilliant, read in class epitome as epi-tome. It was shocking, but he was like, “I’ve never seen that word written before.” Fair enough.

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  11. Janet, I’m loving the confessions of the commenters, on your post. Once, I told a friend that I’d gotten lost and took a circus route back to my hotel. Blinking, she said “did you mean circuitous route?” Well, yes, I did, but we wouldn’t have laughed so hard if I’d said it correctly.

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    • Aren’t they funny? I love reading comments; they always add to the discussion or provide excellent examples. Yours is another funny one, and it sounds like both you and your friend handled it with flair. Would I know this friend?

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  12. What happened to you at church is one of my biggest fears when it comes to public speaking. The great thing is that this post is very relatable. I also find myself failing to remember words I want to use too often.

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    • I’m glad you related, Jeffrey, but also sorry because it means you, too, know the embarrassment of gaffes. But we should both take comfort in knowing it’s a very common condition among the populace and a source of laughter when the embarrassment subsides.

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  13. Unlike you at my blog (your comment this morning), I have learned never to take a sip of coffee when reading one of your posts.

    “slicked my bangs” — perfect. Did you lick your hand before or just dry slick ’em? I was a dry slicker.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I have always shied away from anything resembling public speaking because I have a stutter that kicks up whenever I get up to a certain level of nervousness. Reading about your mishaps, I am glad I have kept silent.

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  15. Wonderful snippets, I especially love the George W Bush one, ‘inebriating’ with his clever coverup, laughing at himself.
    I bet none of the students pulled you up and shouted out tragedy.

    Liked by 1 person

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