Alumnus Investigates Verbal Blunders

What are the origins of the Freudian slip? How are hesitations and interruptions useful to cops and interrogators? Why do President Bush’s verbal gaffes, such as “misunderestimate,” fascinate people?

These are just a few of the questions alumnus Michael Erard (M.A. Linguistics, ’96; Ph.D. English, ’00) tackles in “Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean” (Random House, 2007), now out in paperback.

According to Erard, everyday speech is filled with verbal blunders—approximately one in every 10 words. That gives him a lot of ground to cover in “Um,” which is packed with interviews with interpreters, police officers, psychologists, transcribers at the Federal News Service, and members of Toastmasters, a public speaking club.

Erard investigates everything from a brief history of the word “um” to the birth of bloopers, distilling complex linguistic theories along the way.

“Who’d have thought that a book called ‘Um…’ could be such a page-turner?” says Geoffrey Nunberg, a commentator for National Public Radio. “…a fascinating meditation on why blunders happen, and what they tell us about language and ourselves.”

Erard’s essays on language and culture have appeared in The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly and Rolling Stone. He earned a 2008 Ralph A. Johnston Writing Fellowship from the university and Texas Institute of Letters and began his residency at Paisano Ranch this fall.

Learn more at Erard’s blog

Have you committed any verbal blunders lately? Leave a comment and tell us about it.