As well as being a large New World monkey, a werewolf in full cry, or an unpleasant letter in a red envelope sent to someone at Hogwarts, the other definition of howler is a stupid mistake or ludicrous blunder. Some of them find their way into general parlance, particularly when used by a person of note, and Covfefe appears to have achieved this rather dubious status with the greatest of ease.
In the old days, before everyone thought they could write because their computers made everything look professional, howlers were limited to hard copy, whether it was a manuscript or a sign in a shop window. I fondly remember such delights as the notice in my local butcher’s, during a salmonella outbreak one Christmas: AVOID SALMONELLA BY OUR TURKEYS. I’m afraid it took me a moment to realise that it was the letter U that was missing, as in those days we automatically expected accuracy. Both spelling mistakes and punctuation can radically change the meaning of a sentence, and misplaced apostrophes and omitted hyphens can do the same too. BEWARE MAN EATING TIGERS – man-eating would have worked so much better. Let’s eat, grandma, is preferable to LET’S EAT GRANDMA. And – That’s all. I’ve finished. This means something very different to: THAT’S ALL I’VE FINISHED.
But Spellcheck and Predictive Text have added a whole new dimension to what can go wrong. The muse Urania became the muse Urine in a poetry magazine, and Byron became Bryan. A book I was editing for a rather adventurous elderly gentleman contained the sentence: She showed him how to give her an organism. I’m sure you can guess what that was meant to be.
Howlers don’t have to be typos, of course. They can be factual inaccuracies. It’s always important to research things about which you may not be entirely certain, as one mistake can stop your reader from believing in anything that follows. I’m always glad that I didn’t spot the anachronism in C.S.Lewis’s The Silver Chair when I first read it. It wasn’t until many years later that I thought – hang on. Caspian is probably in his late teens when he meets the star’s daughter in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who he subsequently marries. But when Eustace arrives in Narnia at the beginning of The Silver Chair, Caspian is a very old man close to death. His son Rilian has disappeared, but when Eustace eventually finds him Rilian is a young man in his early twenties. Although men may be able to father children into their sixties and beyond, the star’s daughter would have been post-menopausal. Good job I didn’t know that at the time!
Mistranslations can be an excellent comic device.
Water-sheep – Hydraulic ram
Tea for sad people – The cup that cheers
In a Copenhagen airline ticket office: We take your bags and send them in all directions.
In a Bangkok dry cleaner’s: Drop your trousers here for best results.
A barbershop in Zanzibar, Tanzania: Gentlemen’s throats cut with nice sharp razors.
Thailand: Please do not bring solicitors into your room.
In my book Beware of Men with Moustaches, set in a fictional ex-Soviet republic, I had great fun with them:
One of the girls said, “I have – how do you say – period?”
You and me both, thought Julie, who was having a particularly difficult one.
“I think she means periodical,” said Sybil.
Ferris looked at Svetlana. “What did she say?”
“She was pleased you were learning Karetsefian. The chocolate sauce was – how do you say – on the roof.”
Long live mistakes of every sort! They’re great material.
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