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.