I've been fascinated by slips and typos like these for a long time,
but in a lecture by Daniel Dennett (at the University of Virginia in
Spring 1995) I finally found a wonderful metaphoric description for
them. Think of the effect of changing a single nucleotide in a DNA
strand. Most often it makes no difference (DNA has many redundant
encodings). If it does make a difference, usually it's negative. But
once in a while, the mutation has a positive effect, and the result is
Now, consider the same thing occurring in a long string of letters,
instead of nucleotides.
The Washington Post's "Style Invitational" invited readers to construct
humorous "slips", although their rules were slightly different: add,
subtract or change one letter, and supply a new definition.
The list below contains some "positive
mutations" that I've encountered.
- My absolute favorite, from a colleague at Industrial Light & Magic:
I need to make a short (2-3 min) film of a spider for
an opera production.
If you have a nice big scary one,
I'd love to immoralize it on film.
From another colleague at ILM, about ILM's proposed move to a new location,
and the fact that we're one of four companies submitting plans
for the property:
does [it] seem that this company is more of a shoe in
than the others?
Hmm, perhaps the new space is so small that we'll need a shoehorn to fit
everyone in? (She meant shoo in.)
- Seen on a package of bookcase-anchoring devices (so your bookcase
doesn't topple over during an earthquake) for sale at Home Depot:
"Provides discrete protection...". I'd rather it provide
continuous protection, wouldn't you? (They meant discreet.)
- In response to a question about landlord-tenant disputes,
the writer recommended picking up a particular reference book at
The author of some lecture notes about digital media turned an
into a whistling tea kettle
Parctising my talk one more time before I head over.
To get the joke here, you have to know that the talk was to be given
at Xerox PARC.
I am now firmly convinced that your parents were causal aquaintances.
Posted on rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.* (speaking to JMS) on 6 Dec 1996. Yes,
I'd have to say that they were the cause and he's the effect. And I'm
not saying that casually.
I thought I'd lull you into a fall sense of security.
Posted on rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.* on 9 Nov 1996... so maybe it's a
winter sense of security instead?
The wife of man is nasty, brutish, and short.
The original, by Hobbes, was "the life...". I can't remember the author of
the mutated version.
- In a rec.humor.funny post (15 April 1995) about an "Internet
Poster's License", the writer suggests that
Depending on state law,
one might also have to provide proof of libelity insurance.
Did he mean "liability" or was "libel" deliberate? Either way, the
premium's gonna be costly.
- Describing how a program crashed and core-dumped, the writer
intended to say
but instead produced
-- a fine description of the way his program died.
, meaning "congratulations", or literally, "good
, meaning perhaps "may a ton of good things happen". For a whole
list of this kind of one-letter-changed inter-language pun, click
Recently, I've seen several examples of a general class of slips:
words that end in ents with related words ending in ence.
And a related error:
- All the residence of the small town were very friendly.
- This takes precedents over all other questions.
- For all intensive purposes... (should be intents
I'm also amused by the phrases that folks come up with when they hear
words they don't understand. This happens most often when a
journalist interviews someone about a topic unfamiliar to the
journalist. The technical terms get mangled in sometimes-humorous ways.
And it's not limited to journalists writing about technology...
- At a public hearing on tidal marsh restoration,
a refererence to
(the total volume of water that moves in and out on the tides)
was recorded by the court reporter as
The inmates of this prison are probably rather "crabby"!
- The computer hacker who was reported as
got the ROOT password).
New York Times, 27 Feb 1995.
- Rutgers University's new laser-based tool for diagnosing ulcers
doesn't run away. At least, that's what the journalist who turned
Reuters, 27 Feb 1995.
- In a for-sale newsgroup posting, someone advertised a bunch of
kitchen gadgets, including a
. Now, I've heard Miss Manners mention fruit knives, but I
didn't realize there were different kinds for specific fruits! (Okay,
maybe I should have realized, given that grape scissors exist...)
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Last modified: Mon Nov 24 13:35:36 EST 1997