Howlers – by Elizabeth Kay

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.
Like most writers, I have other forms of income and, like most writers, a lot of it consists of teaching. 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. It took me a moment to realise that it was the letter U that was missing. 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. They bled profusely became they bred profusely. And 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!

There are some terrific factual howlers to be found on the internet, of course. How many are genuine is questionable, but despite that here are some of my favourites:

A consonant is a large piece of land surrounded by water.
Big flies were hoovering all around the room.
Britain has a temporary climate.
The Andes are a race of people living in North America.
The King wore a scarlet robe trimmed with vermin. 
The Earth makes a resolution every 24 hours. 
Solomon had 300 wives and 700 cucumbers. 
The Jews were a proud people, but always had trouble with unsympathetic Genitals. 
In future all cars will be fitted with Catholic converters.
The Greeks invented three kinds of columns – Corinthian, Doric and Ironic.
A myth is a female moth.

Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100 foot clipper.
Three kinds of blood vessels are arteries, vanes and caterpillars.
Julius Caesar extinguished himself on the battlefields of Gaul.
Queen Elizabeth’s navy went out and defeated the Spanish Armadillo.
Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope.
Handel was half German, half Italian, and half English.
A centimetre is an insect with a hundred legs.
Shakespeare wrote tragedies, comedies and hysterectomies, all in Islamic pentameter.

And as I’m in that sort of mood, here are few good mistranslations:

Hydraulic ram – water-sheep
The cup that cheers – tea for sad people
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.
Berlin cloakroom: Please hang yourself here.
If this is your first visit to the USSR, you are welcome to it.
South Korea: Choose twin bed or marriage size; we regret no King Kong size.
Italy: Please dial 7 to retrieve your auto from the garbage.
Italy: Suggestive views from every window.
Italy: If service is required, give two strokes to the maid and three to the waiter.
Spain: We highly recommend the hotel tart.
Qatar: Please do not use the lift when it is not working.
Thailand: Please do not bring solicitors into your room.

Mistranslations are an excellent comic device, as well. 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.
“Yes, periodical,” agreed the girl. She had waist-length plaits that shone like twists of liquorice, and dove-grey eyes rimmed with black lashes. “Periodical of recent nihilistic poems about radioactive poisoning.”

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.


Jan Needle said…
Thanks Elizabeth - jut what I needed while I listen to the snow thawing off the roof. One of my favourites was a wartime one (again, I've no idea if it's true or not) General Flies Back to Front
Enid Richemont said…
Oh these are WONDERFUL!!! Made me laugh on a chilly, grey day. Love yours too, Jan.
Elizabeth Kay said…
I love yours as well, Jan
Pauline said…
Had a chuckle over these! Before I retired, when I was teaching English, I was also an examiner, marking hundreds of papers each year. What made it easier was the occasional 'howler' - such as one student, who was writing about 'War of the Worlds'. He informed me that "the Martian came out of the crater, waving its testicles"!
Anonymous said…
Couldn't Caspian have fathered Rilian when he was in his 40s? Maybe he and his star daughter wife took a long time to conceive. Maybe their earlier children were killed by marauding giants. We don't know, but I seem to remember that Peter the High King and his brother Edmund were often on Narnia's borders, fighting off giants, so the problem could have persisted into Caspian's reign. (I may be succumbing to a bout of fan fiction, sorry). And for someone to be dying in their sixties feels young to us now (!) but perhaps not, 70 or so years ago.

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