The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Make Surprising Sense

The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Make Surprising Sense


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Inspired by his tenure at The New Yorker, this collection of comical, revelatory errors foraged from the wilds of everyday English comes with commentary by the author, illustrations by Roz Chast, and a foreword from Billy Collins.

During his time at The New Yorker, Daniel Menaker happened across a superb spelling mistake: “The zebras were grazing on the African svelte." Fascinated by the idea of unintentionally meaningful spelling errors, he began to see that these gaffes—neither typos nor auto-corrects—are sometimes more interesting than their straight-laced counterparts. Through examples he has collected over the course of his decades-long career as an editor and writer, he brings us to a new understanding of language--how it's used, what it means, and what fun it can be. 
Illustrated by the inimitable Roz Chast, with a foreword from former poet laureate Billy Collins, The African Svelte offers thoughtful and intelligent exit Jesus. Menaker glances at  familiar fumbles like "for all intensive purposes" and "doggy-dog world," but readers delighted by language will find themselves turning the pages with baited breath to discover fresh howlers that have them laughing off their dairy airs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544800632
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 10/18/2016
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

DANIEL MENAKER worked at the New Yorker and as editor-in-chief at Random House. He has written for the New York Times, the Atlantic, Slate, and others.
ROZ CHAST has written or illustrated more than a dozen books, including her bestselling memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?.

Read an Excerpt


from the gecko

that no creative project has ever finalized as planned."

In Malay, onomatopoeia calls what we call geckos gecoqs, after their vocalizations. There are more kinds of geckos — 1,500 species — than of any other lizard, and they have autotomy. That is, they can shed their tails in a pinch, as an appetizer, to throw predators off pursuit of the entrée. They are mainly tropical or subtropical in habitat, have no eyelids, and lick their eyes to keep them moist so as to refresh their color vision, which is 350 times more discriminating than ours. They exude an adhesive substance from their feet and can walk on ceilings, as they often do in tropical climates, where they are regarded fondly, almost like pets, since they eat insects.

The slow pace of the to-me-mystifyingly Cockney-accented gecko who represents the Geico (get it? I just did; embarrassing) insurance company is indeed true to the gecko's ambulation. But attributing bewilderment to him, as the ads often do, is speciesist, implying that he's sort of helpless from the get-go. The ads generally play on the promised speediness of Geico's mantra: "Fifteen minutes could save you fifteen percent or more" on car insurance. The ads, then, and the svelte "gecko" for "get-go," show what we'll see again and again in these kinds of mistakes — a handsome synonymic or antonymic connection between the right and the wrong.

According to some sources, "get-go" started out as an African American slang invention. According to other sources, it is simply a compression, African American or otherwise, of "get going." Others still, a compression of the southern and western idiom "git up and go." In any case, it has caught on everywhere, probably because of its rapid alliteration, which is almost onomatopoetic for an engine starting — onomatopoetic like many other expressions that have a rapid auditory component, like "pitter-pat" and "ah-choo!"

GECKOS LIVE IN HOT, dry climates and unlike sailors do not have bellybuttons, so at least they can't waste their time with what the Lufkin (Texas) Daily News accused the New YorkTimes of —


naval gazing.

A QUITE COMMON svelte — "naval" for "navel" and vice versa. The backgrounds of the two words are straightforward and have nothing to do with each other. But you feel — or at least I felt — an immediate instinctive affection for this mistake. The two words are connotative cousins, because what is a navel if not a little ship, afloat on the (sometimes vast) ocean of a tummy? What else is a ship on the ocean if not a micro-omphalos? (Well, OK — many other metaphorical things.) And doesn't naval gazing make sense in its own right? Ask Otis Redding, as he's sittin' on the dock of the bay. Or Ishmael:

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see? — Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep.

The two kinds of gazing are opposed with regard to distance and focus, but they have in common passive and silent meditation. At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from meditation, but similarly centered in liquid, is this simple but eloquent sentence from an annoyed email sent by a kid to her mother, right after someone at her summer camp played a water prank of some kind on her:


I am sobbing wet.

THERE SEEMS to be a scholarly consensus that the sound of the word "sob" is probably imitative of some aspect of the act of weeping. And that the same may be true of the words for this grief activity in other languages. This seems strange when, according to Collins English Dictionary, these translations include: Czech, vzlykat; Danish, hulke; Dutch, snikken; European Spanish, sollozar; German, schluchzen; Finnish, nyyhkyttää.

It seems far more sensible to transpose "sop" into "sob," given not only their nearly identical sounds but also the serious wetness of both words. It makes similar sense that "sop" shares its derivation with "soup." A sop was originally and still occasionally is a piece of bread or other food to be dipped in soup or sauce. It makes two or three different kinds of sense that the camper came up with this unconfusing confusion.

Campers in distress. I was a counselor for a bunk of eight-year-olds at my uncle's summer camp when I was nineteen. At the beginning, one of the kids in my bunk suffered teasing by the others, because he was seriously unathletic and a little frail-looking. I managed to put an end to the teasing, but not before Greg ran into the bunk alone one day, early in the season, and threw his arms around me, sobbing, over some taunt. Nonplussed, never having found myself in this kind of loco parentis before, I hugged him and tried my best to comfort him. He calmed down and sat there for a few minutes, and I told him how impressively good he was at some unathletic activity. The sun came out in his face, and he jumped up cheerfully and ran out of the bunk without a word, leaving me with a sobbing-wet T-shirt shoulder, and feeling for the first time in my life something like an adult.

In connection with soup and sopping and sobbing, maybe these first few entries have served to do what a cover letter on a short-story submission was promising to


wet your appetite

FOR MORE. (Or maybe the opposite, since "wet" sometimes brings along with it the sense of figurative dampening, as in "wet blanket," or weakness, as in "wet noodle.") This is a very common svelte, and I join with my wife, Katherine, in finding it not that amusing in itself. But the accidental salivary connotation pleased me for its absolute appropriateness. And the contrast between the images produced in the mind by "whet" and "wet" is a nice sharp one. And don't forget that if you happen to sharpen a tool on a whetstone, you often put oil or water on the blade to keep it from getting too hot. There may also be a confusion in this svelte between the idiomatic whetting of the appetite and the wetting of the whistle.

The metaphorical meaning of "whet" — "to encourage or incite" — appears to have applied to its roots early on. Here, from the invaluable Online Etymology Dictionary, is the whole story:

Old English hwettan "to whet, sharpen," figuratively "incite, encourage," from Proto-Germanic "hwatjan" (cognates: Old Norse "hvetja," "to sharpen, encourage," Middle Low German, Middle Dutch wetten, Old High German wezzan, German wetzen "to sharpen," Gothic ga-hvatjan "to sharpen, incite"), from PIE [Proto-Indo-European] root *kwed- "to sharpen" (cognates: Sanskrit codati "incites," literally "sharpens"; Old English hwæt "brave, bold," Old Saxon hwat "sharp").

OMG, these etymologies can be so ornate and complex that they can give the reader what an email forwarded to me described as


a furled brow.

A FURLED BROW strikes me as a far more dangerous physical and psychological condition than a furrowed one, since "furl" means "to roll or fold up, usually neatly." Think of the forehead of a person in a state of such concern that his brow folds over on itself, maybe more than once, flag-like. He has literally worried himself to death. From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

furl(v.) 1550s, of uncertain origin, possibly from Middle French "ferler," "to furl," from Old French "ferlier," "chain, tie up, lock away."

A furrow is a thin line in the soil, for planting, or, more figuratively, in the forehead, for thinking. So, as the derivation of "furl" makes clear, the relationship between the two words is closer than one might have at first thought, as furrows are there to plant seeds and lock them away. Both words also imply linearity.

From time to time in my gathering of sveltes, the words brought to mind some real-life experiences that made those words come to life. For the first example, the word "furled" caused a furrowed brow in one of the writers I worked with as a publisher. Matteo Pericoli, a superb Italian artist trained as an architect, created a book called Manhattan Unfurled, an elegant foldout, continuous drawing of the entire Manhattan skyline. Matteo was easy to kid, so I kept telling him, "Maybe the title should be Manhattan Furled, because when the customer buys it, the drawing is in fact furled."

"Dan, Dan — what are you saying?" Matteo would reply. "It has to be 'unfurled.' That is what is so special, you know."

"I'm not sure. When people buy it, it's definitely furled. Then they get to unfurl it."

"Dan, Dan — no, it has to be 'unfurled.'?"

"Well, not to be insistent, but would you think about it? You know what 'insistent' means?"

"Yes, Dan, I know what 'insistent' means. My English is very good, you know."

"You are extremely recalcitrant."

"What does this mean?"

Another time, Matteo told me about the wonderful cook and housekeeper who worked for his family. She would serve chicken and boast about the recipe. When she was out of earshot, Matteo's father would say, "Chicken is always chicken."

Cooking and cuisine bring to mind step 3 in an ancient recipe for date candy —


Kneed in the walnuts.


You wonder if this is a necessary step in the preparation of whatever cuisine is under discussion. Maybe the author is trying to introduce a personal martial-arts narrative element into his recipes. In any case, "knead" and "kneed" do share a physically vigorous, not to say aggressive, even violent, meaning. So the mistake, as usual, has its own logic and subliminal justice.

"Nuts" for "testicles" started somewhere in the vernacular of the early twentieth century. Who knows whether whoever started it did so because of not only the roughly visual but the definitely reproductive appropriateness of the invention.

"Walnut," in particular, works well both ways. It comes from the Old English wealhhnutu, literally "foreign nut," because the tree originated in Persia. You can readily understand why the metaphorical nut of a situation or an idea sits at its center, why the nut is the essential sum of money in a transaction, and why it's that little thing that holds the screw fast. But why does "nut" also mean "crazy person"? Because in the seventeenth century, to be "nutts upon" someone was to be extremely fond of him or her. That is, to be sort of crazy about, in my case, her. This, in turn, according to etymologists, owed its meaning to the even older slang usage of "nut" for "head."

Haven't you almost gone nuts when you were in what a blog post called


the throws of packing?

HOW MANY TIMES have you heard or read something like, "I just threw a lot of things into a suitcase and got to the airport as fast as I could"? Or, I hope not quite as often, "Just throw your stuff together and get out of my house, buster!"

The confusion is etymologically a natural one, because, as is the case with our own origin ("pang of childbirth"), the origins of both words — "throw" and "throe" — include the notion of pain. In fact, it's possible that both words descend from the Old English þrawan, "to curl, writhe." Packing inflicts a certain amount of pain on most of us, unless you are like my late father-in-law, who used to pack two days before a trip and then look on smugly as others scurried around the morning of.

But, then, if "throe" generally connotes pain — as in "death throes" — what do we do with the "throes of passion"? What we do is recognize that we have associated sexual ardor with pain from the beginning. "Hurt so good," as John Mellencamp puts it. So the word can be deployed for two contrasting psychological states, depending on its context.

Most of us pack with both hands, usually on dry land, but the baseball player Pat Venditte, of the Oakland A's, is more adaptable in his work environment, according to the East Oregonian, which headlined his first performance this way:


Amphibious Pitcher Makes Debut.

BEING ABLE TO operate on land and on or in the water may not seem like a plus for a pitcher, except just before the umpires signal, or at least should signal, for a rain delay — which happens too rarely in these days of televised games — or his team is playing an away game in Atlantis. And Venditte is obviously the goto reliever if another team pinch-hits Aquaman after climate change makes the movie Water World come true.

And what a spitball he can throw!

In Greek, amphibios means "leading a double life." (The word "biology" has the same provenance.) It makes sense, then, that baseball experts have long considered lefties and righties to be almost different species, even psychologically. "Ambidextrous," the correct word for the headline, means, on the literal level, "having two right hands," which betrays the ancient prejudice against lefties, as does the word "sinister," which comes from sinistra, Latin for "left." The Latin prefix ambi grew out of the Greek amphi-. So there's a two-ness and a oneness to the roots here.

In other related Greco-Roman words, an amphora was a two-handled vessel for oil and rice and other food supplies. And the second part of the word, "phora," informs "metaphor" — "a carrying over." Which is exactly what the Romans did with the word "amphora" itself — carried it over from Greek.

From the Department of Fussy Losing Battles: We pronounce "amphora" as "amfora," "metaphor" as "metafor," and "amphibious" as "amfibious," so let's please continue — or start, as the case may be — to pronounce "amphitheater" not as "ampitheater" but "amfitheater," and "diphtheria" not as "diptheria" but as "diftheria." Fank you.

But back to our discussion of doubles. A disguise, in a way, makes a person into two people. It creates ambiguity and ambivalence. But there is a disguise that makes a person into no one, as happened when, according to a CNN closed caption,


the terrorist was wearing a baklava.

AN UNPRECEDENTED DISGUISE, and in the running for Best Svelte Ever. I wonder how seriously the threats of a terrorist outfitted this way could possibly have been taken. To say nothing of how he managed to sneak a baklava on board a plane through the dessert detector. And exactly where on his terrorist body he was wearing it. But really, it doesn't matter. As long as it alerts us to the danger of passengers at the boarding gate who are sporting sticky, layered pastries.

The word "baklava" probably comes from the Mongolian bayla — "to tie, wrap up, pile up." But it gets complicated, because bayla is what etymologists call a loanword — from Turkish. In the case of "baklava," with a possibly Persian terminal fragment — the va. Just as linguists differ about the origin of the word, Lebanese, Greek, Turkish, Armenian, and other native chefs argue about which of their nations is principally responsible for its culinary invention, but so far without casualties or special ops.

A "balaclava," the haberdashery of choice for many terrorists and no doubt the source of confusion here, is a close-fitting cap that covers the head and neck, leaving only a small part of the face exposed. The word earned its apparel usage at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. Everything involved here provides an excellent context for an excellent svelte — the region, the violence, the protection, the idea of concealment, and almost all the letters. But, sadly, the opposite of the sweetness.

As long as we're in the neighborhood, and speaking of (arguably) Greek food, another closed-captioner, recording a live spoken report, wrote a few years back,


The Russian takeover of Crimea is a feta com plea.

CLOSED CAPTIONS PROVIDE a cornucopia of instant sveltes, and an even bigger supply of garbles, but few of the errors rise to this level of distinction.

Polyphemus, in Book 9 of The Odyssey, before making a meal or two of Odysseus's companions, goes about milking his sheep and creating an epic version of feta. Two or three thousand years later, Odysseus's descendants laid European Union legal claim to the term "feta," thus, according to the Financial Times, creating an international cheese crisis, which grew out of the economic consequences of Russia's takeover of — guess where! That's right, the Crimea:

In Brussels ... negotiators from the EU and the US have been mulling a host of awkward questions as they try to fashion arguably the most ambitious trade pact attempted, [including] whether only Greek producers really should be allowed to sell "feta" cheese.


Excerpted from "The African Svelte"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Daniel Menaker.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Foreword, March!,
Introduction: From There to Here,
The Sveltes,
1. from the gecko,
2. naval gazing.,
3. I am sobbing wet.,
4. wet your appetite,
5. a furled brow.,
6. Kneed in the walnuts.,
7. the throws of packing?,
8. Amphibious Pitcher Makes Debut.,
9. the terrorist was wearing a baklava.,
10. The Russian takeover of Crimea is a feta com plea.,
11. a last-stitch effort.,
12. undo stress.,
13. vast asleep.,
14. a Grecian spoon.,
15. Al Italia called.,
16. Did Flight MH370 allude radar?,
17. Aztech ruins.,
18. calender.,
19. roman o'clay.,
20. no-nothings.,
21. ... in which H.G. Wells builds a time machine which is high jacked by Jack the Ripper.,
22. Pimps feel they get a bad wrap, arent at all like sex traffickers ie, the international shit, holding bitches hostage.,
23. #MarshalLaw.,
24. song-cycle [that] seems to waiver from quiet to intense.,
25. Grand Budapest Hotel officially joins kale as most noisesomely ubiquitous and overrated phenomenon of 1st Quarter of 2014,
26. Amber Lynn.,
27. fool hearty.,
28. J-walking.,
29. slight of hand,,
30. self of steam.,
31. faux-gentile.,
32. eek out a living.,
33. rod iron parrot cage.,
34. shuttered to a stop.,
35. If I masterbait in a plane, is it a hijacking?,
36. Your dairy air looks rather ravishing from this vantage point.,
37. Please bare with me.,
38. Straight of Hormuz.,
39. baited breath,
40. vocal chords.,
41. tow the line.,
42. shoe-in,
43. started to cantor.,
44. a mirrow and a chester drawers.,
45. Le Maison du HandBurger.,
46. stuck in the styx.,
47. heart-rendering.,
48. morter —,
49. I besiege you to employ the services of two special agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.,
50. pus jewel.,
51. the Red Hot Chile Peppers.,
52. lack-toes intolerant,,
53. pluthora,
54. How do you remove oil from chettar cheese?,
55. unchartered waters.,
56. the feint of heart,
57. oparate without interfearance,
58. levy those words with a smile,,
59. bough,,
60. poseable thumb,,
61. pass mustard.,
62. cacoughany of sounds,
63. ad homonym,,
64. wanna-bees.,
65. It cheers me to find a poet's name in lights on a marquis!,
66. esprit décor.,
67. Cholesteroil,
68. curly cues,
69. ultraviolent radiation —,
70. garbidge station.,
71. end-trails,,
72. Bedside Manor,
73. run the gammot,
74. Segway,,
75. above approach,,
76. dead wringers,
77. wrangle an invitation,
78. imposter.,
79. rock and role,
80. something that really gets my gander up.,
81. When I wake up I have to hack up mukis.,
82. Can the Gaul Bladder Envelope the Liver?,
83. Home Remedies to Treat Flem in Throat. (Cf. No. 81.),
84. gutteral.,
85. pail in comparison,
86. spreading like wildflowers.,
87. I was a skid-roe bulimic.,
88. physical year,,
89. blessing in the skies,,
90. horse of a different collar.,
91. like a puppy on a string.,
92. My main meal was spaghetti with cuddle-fish sauce.,
93. pillow of his community,
94. "a pillow of strength",
95. never seizes to amaze me,,
96. The Janet Jackson ... halftime performance mishap ... has been edged in stone as a historical television incident.,
97. a fine fettle of fish,
98, 99, 100, and 100+. Breech, broach, and breach. And, come to think of it, brooch.,
101. a brick and mortal store.,
About the Author and Illustrator,
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