'Um' ... A Pause for Linguistic Appreciation

It's one of the most common words in English, and one of the most maligned. But it has been doing useful work for centuries, and lately it's acquired a new, hip meaning. Fresh Air linguist Geoff Nunberg gives us his thoughts on the little word, "um."

Breaking Down the, Uh, Blunders of Speech

Author Michael Erard

hide captionJournalist and linguistics specialist Michael Erard became fascinated with George W. Bush's speaking goofs during his first campaign for president.

Wyatt McSpadden

It's an unfortunate reality: the verbal slips, blips, bloopers and blunders that litter our, uh, everyday speech.

Though all those ums and ers and slips of the tongue can seem like meaningless distractions, journalist and linguistics specialist Michael Erard says that ultimately, they follow a regular pattern, like grammar.

His work of "applied blunderology" is called Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. It categorizes blunders, investigates why we make them and serves up a generous amount of slips, malapropisms and even Bushisms.

George W. Bush's speaking gaffes and his portrayal in the media during his first campaign for president inspired Erard to delve into the history of verbal blunders. He found that there are two main categories of blunders: slips of the tongue and "speech disfluencies." A slip happens when a person loses control over their speaking, and disfluencies – which happen in every language – are interruption and pause fillers like "uh" and "um" that we think should constitute smoothly flowing talk.

From the blundering Rev. William Archibald Spooner — the famously soapy-tongued warden of New College in Oxford — to Sigmund Freud and Allen Funt of Candid Camera, Erard studies famous verbal slips through history. But he also shows that verbal gaffes are an indelible mark of humanity.

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