The Written Image: The African Svelte

While wading through fiction submissions for the New Yorker in the late 1970s, editor and writer Daniel Menaker came across a particularly vivid verbal blunder: “The zebras were grazing on the African svelte.” So began Menaker’s decades-long obsession with verbal missteps and misspellings that have a flawed, but amusing, logic to them—more than a hundred of which are collected in his book The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Make Surprising Sense, published in October by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Paired with drawings by cartoonist Roz Chast, the collection covers all manner of linguistic fumbles, from “self of steam” and “from the gecko” to “lack-toes intolerant” and “Your dairy air looks rather ravishing from this vantage point.” For each mistake, Menaker offers a brief commentary, describing how he stumbled upon each one—in advertisements, slush piles, tweets, and pub menus—while also touching on word etymologies and linguistic theory. He reveals how writers sometimes unwittingly hit upon the metaphors and linguistic histories packed into words: In one example a writer describes someone as “like a puppy on a string,” and Menaker explains that it’s not an outlandish slipup to make, since it turns out “puppy” and “puppet” are derived from the same French root for “doll” or “toy”: poupée. “English is a marvelous jumble,” Menaker writes, “a mutational jungle of verbiflora and -fauna.” In his introduction to the book, poet Billy Collins agrees. “Words can trip us up in many ways,” he writes. “Deconstruction theory claims that we are always hopelessly and pointlessly tangled in the means of our own expression.” For language lovers, this book, with all its verbal tangles and wit, is sure to, in its own words, “pass mustard.”