Sandy Hobbs and David Cornwell | Letters to Ambrose Merton # 2, 1996
in our previous contribution we described the emergence of collections of “howlers” in Britain (Cornish, 1886) and the United States (LeRow, 1887, Twain, 1887), following which the publication of such comic errors became common. We would like to draw attention to three features of howler collecting. These have to do with the authenticity of the examples, the purposes of the collections, and the possible shaping of the howlers they record.
First, both Cornish and Twain take the trouble to assert that the errors quoted are genuine. Why should they do this, unless on previous occasions when they have cited them — orally, say, or in private correspondence — they found some resistance on the part of the audience? This practice of proclaiming the authenticity of the items in a collection became almost universal subsequently. For example, the Journal of Education, publishing a list of “Fresh Howlers” stated that they were “warranted genuine by the sender” (Anonymous, 1898:102). The editor of the Pocket Book of Boners (1941) expressed “profound contempt” for the “doubting Thomases" who suspect that some have been manufactured (Anonymous, 1941:X). Cecil Hunt (1951:5) denies suggestions that he has invented any howlers. “The genuine supply is ample", he says. Gregory (1977:9) claims, in any cases, that “a connoisseur has little trouble spotting the fakes".
Thus the assertion of the authenticity of one’s own collection is sometimes coupled with a claim that items cited elsewhere are not authentic. Strachan (1930:9) states that examples appear in the press which are “obviously artificlal", whilst Thomson (1935:144) says of such examples that they “smell too much of the lamp". Occasionally, an editor will acknowledge that a few items are “not uncut gems” (Hunt, 1951:5) or, as Muir (1986:7) less coyly states, “some are apocryphal” and have “grown in the telling”.
Yet, when one notes how frequently editors acknowledge the help of an earlier printed source or of a correspondent, one may doubt whether these collectors are really in a position to “guarantee” items collected initially by others. To put it bluntly, they have to rely on the word of the previous collector. Collectors of howlers are not normally seeking to meet the standards of some academic discipline, and there is circumstantial evidence that some howlers have circulated pretty much as folklore does. Before leaving this point, we must note too, that some editors’ claims to have gathered their material themselves is open to doubt. One writes that “over the years I have collected schoolboy howlers…here are the best” (Brandreth, 1983:2l2). However, when one examines the list of 100 one discovers that two groups, totaling 56 in all, which are virtually identical with items published by Gregory (1977) and are even printed in the same order!
Both Cornish and Twain, whilst seeking openly to amuse their readers, also claim to have some seriousness of purpose too. Cornish (1886:619) expressed the hope that his attempt to classify boys’ blunders would “prepare the way for a scientific study of a most interesting subject”. Twain, on the other hand is more concerned with the light which the mistakes shed on issues of educational policy. The proper object of our laughter is not so much the pupil or even the teacher, but the policy makers, “the unintelligent Boards, Committees and Trustees", who are responsible for the fact that “a large part of the pupil’s ‘instruction’ consists of cramming him with obscure and wordy ‘rules’ which he does not understand and has no time to understand” (Twain, 1887:936). The Century Magazine apparently received a large amount of correspondence about Twain's article and subsequently published a letter from Caroline LeRow who had originated the matter in the first place. She wrote in even stronger terms than Mark Twain, quoting Herbert Spencer, that “The wrong things are taught at the wrong time and in the wrong way" (fellow, 1888:804).
Thus in these early writings the howlers was treated both as a subject for laughter and as a matter for serious public debate. However, there was to develop an approach to “howlers" in which the desire to amuse far outweighed and even swamped the more serious purpose. A sign that this might happen can be found quite early, in an article in the Boy's Own Paper in 1889. The introduction leads one to expect a serious discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the examination system:
The great examination question has lately come to the front again – is it good for boys to be examined. (Anonymous, 1889:99)
However, the article soon becomes dominated by what were then still called “blunders". The howlers which frequently appeared as “fillers” in magazines of the late Victorian era seem to have been presented in the main without any pretence of seriousness of purpose. However, attempts to treat howlers seriously have survived up to the present day.
The eminent educationalist, Sir John Adams, interestingly started his book Errors in Schools (1927) with a chapter largely devoted to howlers. The chapter's title is “The Aesthetic Side", i.e. the aesthetic side of error, and he gives a good deal of attention to why certain errors are amusing, the influence of different circumstances, and so on. However, he argues that those concerned with education should not simply laugh at these mistakes:
The plain man can encounter a howler, smile and pass on without sin. Not so the teacher. It is part of his business to note and to understand howlers. (Adams, 1927:11)
This, of course was the main purpose of his book. This tradition survives up to the present day in the writings of those psychologists and educationists who seek to understand children’s errors by considering them seriously.
A book with the title Scottish School Humour (1935) might have been thought to represent an entirely different point of view. However, the author, Charles Thomson, a retired Scottish headmaster, is not so different in spirit from Adams. Although clearly hoping to amuse his readers, the laughter is sometimes at the expense of teachers, administrators and parents. His treatment of the notion of a “howler" is expressed with a passion slightly unexpected in an essentially light hearted book. He says that he does not know who invented the term “howler" but he does recollect when he first heard it used. lt was by
… an Oxford-trained lecturer at Glasgow University about 45 years ago (that is, around 1890, when the first appearance in print seems also to have occurred). I felt it then to be hateful word. I still think so … it betokens a wrong frame of mind — an unsympathetic attitude. Rightly considered, the child's mistakes are natural and inevitable. They should seldom be greeted with derisive laughter. The laughter they stir should not be that of the gullet, but of the diaphragm, which is nearer the heart. Often they are worthy of careful study. (Thomson, 1936:143)
Nevertheless, Thomson does go on to quote many errors largely to amuse the reader.
Doubts at whether we should be laughing at student error continue to be expressed. For example, two British professional academic bodies, the British Sociological Association and British Psychological Society have found objections being raised when “howlers" were published in their newsletters for members. (See, for example, Benthall, 1975, Cross, 1979.)
In contrast we can see the development of a type of publication where the aim to do nothing more than to amuse is proclaimed.
“The compilation of this book lays no claim to literary achievement. It is purely and simply an effort to amuse those who, perchance in an idle hour, may scan its pages.” (Richmond 1934:iv)
More recent volumes contain similar unequivocal statements of simple goals. Muir (1986:7) states that his criterion of including an item is “lf I had a good laugh". Lederer (1987:vii) says:
“Mainly, I’ve written Anguished English to make you laugh."
That qualifying “mainly” may be a give-away, however, for it may be that the compilers of howler books only wish to present themselves as mere entertainers, that being part of the expected public pose.
The third aspect of the Cornish and Twain papers which we suggest is worth noting is the presence of items which bear interesting relationships with items appearing in later collections. The nature of such relationships may be illustrated by taking two examples. The first and most straightforward has already been mentioned in our contribution to Letters to Ambrose Merton 1; Cornish and LeRow both had a “blunder" in which Socrates, who was described as “no use at fighting", destroyed some statues and had to drink the shamrock. We have not come across the substitution of “shamrock” for “hemlock” again, but in collections ranging in date from 1928 to 1987 we have a similar error. Jerrold (1928:200) has:
Socrates died of an overdose of wedlock.
In four other collections there occurs the virtually identical:
Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock. (Hunt, 1951:30, Gregory 1977:81, Brandreth, 1983:215, Lederer, 1987:14)
Of the “wedlock” texts, there seems good reason to believe that some collectors have been borrowing either from each other or from other a common source. As to their relationship with the earlier “shamrock" texts there is more room for doubt. However, there does seem to be a distinct possibility that the “wedlock" texts represent the outcome of a process of polishing. The less pointed references to fighting ability, to appearance and to destroying statues may have been dropped leaving the more striking and more memorable simple sentence. “Wedlock” has the advantage over “shamrock" of having wider connotations. Shamrocks are not proverbially harmful, but wedlock is a state about which mixed feelings are often expressed, and if “wedlock” were taken to be a euphemism for sexual relations, then a further dimension would be added to the humour.
The second example is rather more complex. Cornish (1886:622) provides the following example and explanation:
A young law-student stated that the statute of Praemunire had to do with “purple boots", which were by it declared illegal. He had apparently been told something about “Papal Bulls”; these words conveying no idea to his mind, he had substituted others more familiar and intelligible.
Since the Statutes of Praemunire were indeed used to assert the authority of the English crown at the expense of Papal authority, the origin of “purple boots” in “Papal Bulls” is plausible, even if it is only inferred. However, from 1896 onwards, we have noted many howlers based on a misunderstanding of “bull" meaning a decree from the Pope, the name deriving from the seal or “bulla" attached to it. The Girl's Own Paper has this example:
Did Martin Luther die a natural death? No, he was excommunicated by a bull. (Anonymous, 1896:653)
Ash (198S:20), who claimed simply to be providing a selection from Hunt’s numerous volumes, has an almost identical formulation. Two American collectors, (Anonymous, 1941:57, Lederer, 1987:10), both refer to this as a “horrible death” but otherwise the howler is the same. Gregory (1977:11) refers to the fact that “Martin Luther was executed by a bull” has been appearing regularly “for the last forty years". However, we have not come across the “executed” form elsewhere. All this suggests a long standing and apocryphal howler. However, this by no means exhausts the plays on “bull” to be found in howler collections.
Thomson (193 5:14-4) has a different summary of the Statute of Praemunire, quoting it as forbidding “the execution of bulls belonging to the Pope". He contrasts this seemingly genuine howler with what he calls an example of “forced wit”:
The Diet of Worms was what the monks ate during Lent. At Easter they were allowed beef, which was called the Papal Bull.
This is a “one-off”; we have found nothing quite like it in any other collections. Other unrepeated howlers involving “Papal Bull" include the following fairly simple examples:
A Papal Bull is a male cow. (Gregory, 1977:72)
A Papal Bull is a rare kind of bull with red spots and generally a black tail. (Hunt, 1934:27)
Under Henry VIII no bulls were allowed to land in England. (Hunt, 1934:17)
Note that in the last case, though “Papal” is missing, the sentence reads like a misunderstanding of a statement about the conflict between Henry VIII and the Pope. A more complex “one-off” and perhaps of dubious authenticity is:
A Papal Bull gave you the alternative of obedience or of being excommunicated from the privileges of the Church. It is a bull with reference to the horns of a dilemma. So an Irish Bull is a choice — You may believe it or you may not believe it. (Richmond, 1935:49)
There remain a number of cases where the Papal Bull is kept in the Vatican — but for rather different purposes:
The Papal Bull was a mad bull kept by the Pope in the Inquisition to trample on Protestants.
This appears in virtually identical forms in Ash (1985:14) and in the Pocket Book of Boners (Anonymous, 1941:19). Richmond (1934:55) has:
The Papal Bull is the father of the cow kept in the Vatican to supply the Pope's children with milk.
Jerrold (1927:193) and the Pocket Book of Boners (Anonymous, 1941:19) have what seems to be a polished version of this:
The Papal Bull was really a cow that was kept at the Vatican to supply milk for the Pope's children.
Just as Socrates dying from an overdose of wedlock adds the possibility of a double entendre, so too in the last quoted Papal Bull howlers, there is additional possibility of inducing some anti-clerical amusement from the idea of the Pope having children.
A question may be asked about these “bull” howlers. Does their frequency mean that misunderstanding “bull” Is a common error or simply that it is widely regarded as a likely error? It is perhaps relevant to note that it is not necessary to employ the “howler” form to make a verbal play on “bull”. OED has a quotation which describes the Pope as issuing “roaring Bulls” against her majesty. The majesty in question is Elizabeth 1st and the date 1593. The joke is an old one.
A type of item not to be found in those early papers by Cornish and Mark Twain, but commonly found in more recent collections of howlers, is the supposed extract from letters to teachers from parents. Thomson has a chapter called “Parents’ Lines” which includes:
Dear Teacher, James Fraser has swollen glands and a bad throat. I will get them cut in the summer time. (1936:239)
Gregory’s chapter is called “Dear Sir or Madman” (sic). An example from it is:
Dear Sir, Kindly excuse Jimmy’s absence from school yesterday. He fell in the river. By doing same you will oblige. (1977:46)
Muir’s equivalent chapter is simply called “Dear Teacher”:
Jessie cannot come to school as she has haricot veins. (1984:10)
In some respects, the presence of such material alongside school students’ howlers is unremarkable. They have is common with the latter the fact that they do purport to contain errors. If and when such parental slips are genuine, they will be noticed by the very people, that is teachers, who identify the school howlers. The fact that substantial collections of parents' howlers seem to come later than collections of those attributed to pupils may simply be due to the fact that parental errors are less common.
However, if we are seeking to understand the nature of howler collecting, parental howlers take on a special interest because of the fact that they can form a link between so-called “schoolboy howlers" on the one hand and what might be termed “claimants‘ letters" on the other. These latter have been discussed by a number of writers, e.g. Jaffe. Some of the examples he quotes are:
Unless l get my husband’s money pretty soon, I will be forced to lead an immortal life.
I am glad to report that my husband who was missing is dead.
Mrs Jones has not had any clothes for a year and has been visited regularly by the clergy. (Jaffe, 1975:145)
MacDougall (1958:291-292) suggests origins for such apocryphal letter extracts around the First World War, citing the War Risk Insurance Bureau as the body to which they were first attributed. However, most of MacDougall’s quoted texts are from the 1930s. Jaffe cites a racist leaflet, Laugh and Let Laugh Way Down South, apparently published in 1943 but probably with an earlier origin, in which such items are quoted ln a mock-“coloured” style. The use of the supposed errors to express hostility to those who supposedly made them could not be clearer.
Jaffe terms these items “welfare" letters but “claimants’ letters” is probably a more satisfactory name since there are similar letters supposedly addressed to insurance companies, e.g.
I collided with a stationary truck coming the other way.
An invisible car came out of nowhere, struck my car and vanished.
I had been driving for 40 years when I fell asleep at the wheel and had an accident. (Dear Mr Thoms 15:21)
The similarities between parents’ letters and claimant letters seem clear. We are invited to laugh at “clients”. Does that mean they originate, and have main audience within “professional" groups, where the knowledgeable professionals can share responses to the clients? This could be said to be true of schoolboy howlers too.
Adams, J. (1927). Errors In School: Their Causes And Treatrnent. London: University of London Press.
Anonymous. (1889). “Cross questions and crooked answers”, Boy’s Own Paper, 11, 699–700.
Anonymous. (1898). “Fresh howlers”, Journal of Education, 20, 102.
Anonymous. (1941). The Pocket Book Of Howlers. New York: Pocket Books
Ash, R. (1985). Howlers. Horsham: Ravette.
Benthall, J. (1975). “Letter to the editor”, Network, Newsletter of the British Sociological Association, 3, 4.
Brandreth, G. (1983). The joy Of Lex. New York: Quill.
Cornish, J.F. “Boys’ blunders”, Cornhill Magazine, 6, 619–628.
Cross, M. (1979). “Miscellany”, Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 32, 263.
Gregory, R.E. (1977). Knight Book Of Howlers. London: Hodder & Stoughton 8
Hunt. C. (1934). Latest Howlers. London: Harrap.
Hunt, C. (1957). My Favourite Howlers. 2nd Ed. London: Benn.
Jaffe, H.J. (1975). “The welfare 1etters", Western Folklore, 34, 144–148.
Jerrold, W. (1928). Bulls, Blunders And Howlers. London: Brentano’s.
Lederer, R. (1987). Anguished English: An Anthology Of Accidental Assaults On The English Language. London: Robson.
LeRow, C. (1887). English As She ls Taught. New York: Cassell. .
LeRow, C.B. (1888). “The public school problem”, Century Magazine, 13, 804–805.
MacDougall, C. (1958). Hoaxes. 2nd Ed. New Yorker: Dover.
Muir, J.G. (1984). Classroom Clangers. Edinburgh: Gordon Wright.
Muir, J.G. (1986). More Classroom Clangers. Edinburgh: Gordon Wright
Richmond, F.M. (1934). School Yarns And Howlers, London: Universal Publications.
Strachan, R. (1930). Humour In The Schoolroom. London: Stockwell.
Thomson, C.W. (1936). Scottish School Humour. Glasgow: Robert Gibson
Twain, M. (1887). “English as she is taught", Century Magazine, 11, 932–936.