Howler (error)

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A project error

A howler is a glaring blunder, typically an amusing one.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines howler, "3.3 slang. Something 'crying', 'clamant', or excessive; spec. a glaring blunder, esp. in an examination, etc.", and gives the earliest usage example in 1872.[1] Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English says; the 1951 edition of Partridge defined it in part as: "... A glaring (and amusing) blunder: from before 1890; ... also, a tremendous lie ... Literally something that howls or cries for notice, or perhaps ... by way of contracting howling blunder."[2]

Another common interpretation of this usage is that a howler is a mistake fit to make one howl with laughter.[3]

Equivalent terms[edit]

All over the world, probably in all natural languages, there are many informal terms for blunders; the English term "howler" occurs in many translating dictionaries.[4][5][6][7] There are other colloquial English words for howler in the sense dealt with in this article, in particular the mainly United States and Canadian slang term boner which has various interpretations, including that of blunder. Like howler, boner can be used in any sense to mean an ignominious and usually laughable blunder, and also like howler, it has been used in the titles of published collections of largely schoolboy blunders since at least the 1930s.[8]

Boner is another colloquialism that means much the same as howler in the context of this article, but its other meanings differ. For one thing, boner is not traditionally used as a general intensifier or for specifically describing an accident or the like, as howler and howling are. Assorted other terms have much longer histories and some of them are not regarded as slang. For example, Bull and Blunder have long been used in similar senses, each with its own overtones and assorted extraneous meanings. Bulls and Blunders, an American book published in the 1890s,[9] uses the word howler only once, in the passage: "Miss A. C. Graham, of Annerley, has received a prize from the University Correspondent for the best collection of schoolboy howlers". Although he did not otherwise use the word himself, the author did not define a term so familiar on both sides of the Atlantic even at that time.

Mathematics as a special case of terminology[edit]

Mathematicians sometimes speak of howlers, mainly in the form of an error which leads innocently, but inappropriately, to a correct result.[10] However, the distinction between mathematical howlers and mathematical fallacies is poorly defined and the terminology is confused and arbitrary; hardly any uniform definition is universally accepted for any term. Terms related to howlers and fallacies include sophism, in which an error is wilfully concealed, whether for didactic purposes or for entertainment. In one sense the converse of either a howler or a sophism is a mathematical paradox, in which a valid derivation leads to an unexpected or implausible result.[11] However, in the terminology of Willard V. O. Quine, that would be a veridical paradox, whereas sophisms and fallacies would be falsidical paradoxes.[12]

Forms of howler[edit]

Typically such definitions of the term howler or boner do not specify the mode of the error; a howler could be a solecism, a malapropism, or simply a spectacular, usually compact, demonstration of misunderstanding, illogic, or outright ignorance. As such, a howler could be an intellectual blunder in any field of knowledge, usually on a point that should have been obvious in context. In the short story by Eden Philpotts[13] Doctor Dunston's Howler, the "howler" in question was not even verbal; it was flogging the wrong boy, with disastrous consequences.

Conversely, on inspection of many examples of bulls and howlers, they simply may be the products of unfortunate wording, punctuation, or point of view. Schoolboy howlers in particular sometimes amount to what Richard Feynman called Perfectly reasonable deviations from the beaten track.[14] Such specimens may variously be based on mondegreens, or they might be derived from misunderstandings of fact by the elders, teachers or communities. Not all howlers originate with the pupil.

Fields in which howlers propagate[edit]

As illustrated, terms such as howler need not specify the discipline in which the blunder was perpetrated. Howlers have little special application to any particular field, except perhaps education. Most collections refer mainly to the schoolboy howler, politician's howler, epitaph howler, judicial howler, and so on, not always using the term howler, boner or the like. There are various classes in mood as well; the typical schoolboy howler displays innocent ignorance or misunderstanding, whereas the typical politician's howler is likely to expose smugly ignorant pretentiousness, bigotry, or self-interest (see examples below).

The howlers of prominent or self-important people lend themselves to parody and satire, so much so that Quaylisms, Bushisms, Goldwynisms, and Yogiisms were coined in far greater numbers than ever the alleged sources could have produced. Sometimes such lampooning is fairly good-humoured, sometimes it is deliberately used as a political weapon. In either case it generally is easier to propagate a spuriously attributed howler than to retract one.

The popularity of howlers[edit]

Collections of howlers, boners, bulls and the like are popular sellers as joke books go, and they tend to remain popular as reprints; Abingdon, for example, remarks on that in his preface.[8] People commonly enjoy laughing at the blunders of stereotypes from a comfortable position of superiority. This applies especially strongly when the object of the condescension and mockery is a member of some other social class or group. National, regional, racial, or political rivals, occupational groups such as lawyers, doctors, police, and armed forces, all are stock targets of assorted jokes; their howlers, fictional or otherwise, are common themes. Older collections of cartoons and jokes, published before the modern sensitivity to political correctness, are rich sources of examples.[15][16][17]

Sometimes, especially in oppressed peoples, such wit takes on an ironic turn and the butt of the stories then becomes one's own people. Very likely such mock self-mockery gave rise to the term Irish bull (as opposed to just any bull) in works such as Samuel Lover's novel Handy Andy.[18]

Similarly the Yiddish stories of the "wise men" of the town of Chelm[19] could be argued to be as rich in self-mockery as in mockery. There are many similar examples of mixed mockery and self-mockery, good-natured or otherwise.[20][21]

Throughout the ages and in practically all countries there have been proverbial associations of given regions with foolishness or insanity, ranging from the Phrygians and Boeotians of classical times, down to the present.[22] Stories of the Wise Men of Gotham are prominent medieval examples. Apocryphally, the men of Gotham feigned insanity to discourage unwelcome attention from the representatives of King John early in the thirteenth century. Their fictitious activities recalled stories from many other alleged regions of dunces and in fact, many recurring stories have been borrowed through the ages from other times and places, either for entertainment or satire. For example, some Gotham stories, variously embellished, are far older than the actual town of Gotham; consider for instance the second one: it concerned the man who, not wishing to overburden his horse, took the load off his horse onto his own back as he rode it. That story dates back much further than medieval times and since the time of the alleged event in Gotham, it has appeared in Afrikaans comics of the mid-twentieth century,[23][24] and no doubt elsewhere. However, such traditions often grow on histories of tyranny and are nurtured as two-edged weapons; as the men of Gotham reputedly said: "We ween there are more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it."[22]

Howler propagation and afterlife – Ghost words[edit]

Howlers "in the wild" include many misuses of technical terms or principles that are too obscure or too unfunny for anyone to publish them. Such examples accordingly remain obscure, but a few have reappeared subsequently as good faith entries in dictionaries, encyclopaedias, and related authoritative documents. In the nature of things, encyclopaedic and lexicographic sources rely heavily on each other, and such words have a tendency to propagate from one textbook to another. It can be very difficult to eradicate unnoticed errors that have achieved publication in standard reference books.[25]

Professor Walter William Skeat coined the term ghost-word in the late nineteenth century. By that he meant the creation of fictitious, originally meaningless, words by such influences as printers' errors and illegible copy. So for example, "ciffy" instead of "cliffy" and "morse" instead of "nurse" are just two examples that propagated considerably in printed material,[25] so much so that they occasionally are to be found in print or in usage today, more than a century later, sometimes in old books still in use,[26] sometimes in modern publications relying on such books.

Apart from the problems of revealing the original errors once they have been accepted, there is the problem of dealing with the supporting rationalisations that arise in the course of time. See for example the article on Riding (country subdivision), paying particular attention to the reference to farthing and the sections on Word history and Norse states. In the context of such documented material the false etymology of "Riding" is particularly illustrative: "A common misconception holds that the term arose from some association between the size of the district and the distance that can be covered on horseback in a certain amount of time".

As a notorious example of how such errors can become officially established, the extant and established name of Nome, Alaska allegedly originated when a British cartographer copied an ambiguous annotation made by a British officer on a nautical chart. The officer had written "? Name" next to the unnamed cape. The mapmaker misread the annotation as "C. Nome", meaning Cape Nome. If that story is true, then the name is a material example of a ghost word.

As an example of how such assertions may be disputed, an alternative story connects the source with the place name: Nomedalen in Norway.

Technical terms and technical incompetence[edit]

The misuse of technical terms to produce howlers is so common that it often goes unnoticed except by people skilled in the relevant fields. One case in point is the use of "random", when the intended meaning is adventitious, arbitrary, accidental, or something similarly uncertain or nondeterministic. Another example is to speak of something as infinite when the intended meaning is: "very large". Some terms have been subject to such routine abuse that they lose their proper meanings, reducing their expressive value. Imply, infer, unique, absolute and many others have become difficult to use in any precise sense without risk of misunderstanding. Such howlers are lamented as a pernicious, but probably unavoidable, aspect of the continuous change of language.[27] One consequence is that most modern readers are unable to make sense of early modern books, even those as recent as the First Folio of Shakespeare or the earliest editions of the Authorized King James Version of the Bible.

The popularity of nautical themes in literature has provided some conspicuous examples. It has tempted many authors ignorant of the technicalities, into embarrassing howlers in their terminology. A popular example is in the opening line of the song Tom Bowling by Charles Dibdin. It refers metaphorically to a human corpse as a "sheer hulk". The intent is something like "complete wreck", which is quite inappropriate to the real meaning of the term. In literature, blunders of that type have been so common for so long that they have been satirised in works such as the short story by Doyle: Cyprian Overbeck Wells, in which he mocks the nautical blunders in the terminology Jonathan Swift used in Gulliver's Travels.[28]

Sources and authenticity[edit]

In contrast to tales representing people's rivals as stupid or undignified, it is easy to believe that many or most schoolboy howlers are genuine, or at least are based on genuine incidents; any school teacher interested in the matter can collect authentic samples routinely.[29] However, it is beyond doubt that the collections formally published or otherwise in circulation contain spurious examples, or at least a high degree of creative editing, as is variously remarked upon in the introductory text of the more thoughtful anthologies.[8][29] It most certainly is not as a rule possible to establish anything like definitive, pedantically correct versions with authentic wording, even if there were much point to any such ideal. Howlers typically are informally reported, and some of them have been generated repeatedly by similar confusion in independent sources. For example, two members of parliament independently approached Babbage with the same uncomprehending question about his machine.[30]

Examples and collections of allegedly genuine howlers[edit]

John Humphrys relates the following example of a journalistic howler: ...The headline above one of the stories on my page read: "Work Comes Second For Tony And I". In case you did not know, newspaper headlines are written not by the contributors but by sub-editors ... I was shocked. That a sub on the Times should commit such a howler was beyond belief.[31] (The howler is that the headline should read, "Tony And Me", given that they are the object of the sentence; however, see coordinative constructions.)

Charles Babbage related his reaction as an intellectual when he wrote: 'On two occasions I have been asked, — "Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?" In one case a member of the Upper, and in the other a member of the Lower, House put this question. I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.'[30] One might see this as a politicians' howler, a layman may so radically fail to understand the logical structure of a system, that he cannot begin to perceive the matching logic of the problems that the system is suited to deal with. One must of course respect the fact that the members concerned had done no worse than reveal their lack of insight into a technical matter; they had not pretentiously propounded personal delusions as fact, which would be more typical of the most notorious howlers perpetrated by politicians.

Probably the most prominent anthologisers of howlers in the United Kingdom were Cecil Hunt[32][33] and Russell Ash.[29] In the United States, probably the most prominent was Alexander Abingdon.[8] According to Abingdon's foreword to Bigger and Better Boners, he shared material with Hunt at least. However, since their day many more collections have appeared, commonly relying heavily on plagiarism of the earlier anthologies.

Here are a few short, illustrative examples of mainly schoolboy howlers culled from various collections:

Examples of retention of misinformation, or where information is presented in an unfamiliar context:

  • A Cattle is a shaggy kind of cow. (Perhaps a city child had been shown a picture of highland cattle before he knew the word “cattle”. If so, the error was natural.)
  • Africa is much hotter than some countries because it is abroad. (To a British child growing up in a cold temperate zone, a natural idea.)
  • Poetry is when every line starts with a capital letter. (Even many adults struggle to distinguish poetry from prose after first encountering free verse.)
  • The locusts were the chief plague, they ate the first-born.
  • All creatures are imperfect beasts. Man alone is a perfect beast.

Unfamiliar instruction heard without comprehension frequently leads to mondegreens and malapropisms:

  • Hiatus is breath that wants seeing to. (for "halitosis")
  • A gherkin is a native who runs after people with a knife. (for "Gurkha")

Mistranslations from foreign languages happen:

  • "Cum grano salis" means: "Although with a corn, thou dancest." (mistranslation from Latin; salis also means "of salt")
  • "Mon frère ainé" means: "My ass of a brother". (mistranslation from French; âne = "donkey", ainé = "older")
  • "Ris de veau financière" (a cookery dish) misrendered from French as "the laugh of the calf at the banker's wife"
  • "La primavera es el parte del ano en que todo se cambia." (The pupil neglected a tilde; año means "year" and ano means "anus".)

Bull: a confusion of wording often related vaguely to a valid idea; not all howlers are bulls in this sense, but the following are:

  • The Magna Carta provided that no free man should be hanged twice for the same offence.
  • Edward III would have been King of France if his mother had been a man.
  • To be a good nurse you must be absolutely sterile.
  • Tundras are the treeless forests of South America.

In extreme examples of bulls it is hard to guess exactly what the pupil had in mind, or how to correct it. Perhaps the following one stems from some idea that Homer’s works were written by someone else. Whatever its origin, it is a prime example of how a howler, and in particular the paradoxical aspects of a bull, presumably inadvertently, may constitute deeper comment on the human condition than most deliberate epigrams:

  • Homer was not written by Homer, but another man of that name.

Sometimes the pupil simply may have been groping for any answer that might placate the examiner.

  • The plural of ox is oxygen.
  • The Israelites made a golden calf because they didn't have enough gold to make a cow.
  • SOS is a musical term. It means Same Only Softer.
  • There are four symptoms for a cold. Two I forget and the other two are too well known to mention.

Some howlers are disconcertingly thought-provoking or look suspiciously like cynicism.

  • Dictionaries are books written by people who think they can spell better than anyone else.
  • "Etc" is a sign used to make believe that you know more than you do.
  • The difference between air and water is that air can be made wetter, but not water.
  • What is half of five? It depends on whether you mean the two or the three.

As already remarked, not all howlers are verbal:

  • One youngster copied down a subtraction sum wrongly, with the smaller number above. As it happened, the date was just above his sum, so he borrowed from his date.


  1. ^ Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM, Version 4.0, Oxford University Press (2009).
  2. ^ Beale, Paul; Partridge, Eric (1984). A dictionary of slang and unconventional English: colloquialisms and catch-phrases solecisms and catachreses, nicknames, and vulgarisms. New York: Macmillan. ISBN 0-02-594980-2.
  3. ^ McArthur, Tom & McArthur, Roshan. The Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Page 446. Publisher: Oxford University Press 1996 ISBN 978-0198631361
  4. ^ Bosman, D. B.; Van der Merwe, I. W.; Hiemstra, L. W. (1984). Tweetalige Woordeboek Afrikaans-Engels. Tafelberg-uitgewers. ISBN 0-624-00533-X.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ van Wely; F. P. H. Prick (1951). Cassell's English-Dutch, Dutch-English dictionary. London: Cassell.
  6. ^ Marie-Helene Correard, Valerie Grundy, Jean-Benoit Ormal-Grenon and Nicholas Rollin. Oxford-Hachette French Dictionary. Publisher: Oxford University Press 2007. ISBN 978-0198614227
  7. ^ M. Clark and O. Thyen. The Oxford-Duden German Dictionary. Publisher: Oxford University Press 1999. ISBN 978-0198602484
  8. ^ a b c d Alexander Abingdon (2007). Boners: Seriously Misguided Facts- According to Schoolkids. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. ISBN 1-57912-740-1.
  9. ^ Brown, Marshall; Bulls and Blunders; S. C. Griggs & Co. Chicago, 2nd ed. 1894
  10. ^ Fallacies in mathematics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 1963. ISBN 0-521-02640-7.
  11. ^ "number game." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite . Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011.
  12. ^ Quine, Willard Van Orman. The Ways of Paradox. Harvard 1976 ISBN 0-674-94837-8
  13. ^ Philpotts, Eden; The Human Boy; Pub: Harper & Brothers 1899
  14. ^ Ferris, Timothy; Feynman, Richard Phillips; Michelle Feynman (2005). Perfectly reasonable deviations from the beaten track: the letters of Richard P. Feynman. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0-7382-0636-9.
  15. ^ Esquire Cartoon Album 25th Anniversary Volume; Pub: Esquire, Inc. Distributed by Doubleday; First Edition 1956
  16. ^ Williams, R. E., Ed.; A Century of Punch; Pub: William Heinemann 1956
  17. ^ Cerf, Bennett A.; Laughing Stock; Grossett & Dunlap 1945
  18. ^ Lover, Samuel; Handy Andy; Pub: H.G. Bohn, London 1853
  19. ^ Rosten, Leo Calvin (2000). The Joys of Yiddish. New York: Pocket. ISBN 0-7434-0651-6.
  20. ^ Blaustein, Richard; Teuchters, Newfies and Hillbillies: Comparing Comic Stereotypes in Scotland, Newfoundland and Appalachia; Scottish Affairs, no.46, winter 2004
  21. ^ Wehman, Henry J.; Black Jokes for Blue Devils; Pub. Henry J. Wehman, 1897
  22. ^ a b Stapleton, Alfred (1900). "All about the merry tales of Gotham". Nottingham: R.N. Pearson.
  23. ^ T. O. Honiball. Jakkals en Wolf collections ranging from 1942 to 1961, e.g. ISBN 0624011291
  24. ^ F. P. Verster. "T.O.Honiball: Culture with a Smile". ISBN 1919980296
  25. ^ a b Wheatley, Henry Benjamin; Literary Blunders; A Chapter in the “History of Human Error”; Publisher: Elliot Stock, London 1893
  26. ^ Campbell, Thomas (1819). "Specimens of the British Poets". John Murray.
  27. ^ Sir Ernest Gowers, Fowler's Modern English Usage, Second Edition. Published: Book Club Associates (1965)
  28. ^ Doyle, Arthur Conan. "The Great Keinplatz Experiment and Other Tales of Twilight and the Unseen".
  29. ^ a b c Ash, Russell (1985). Howlers. Ravette Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0-906710-73-1.
  30. ^ a b Babbage, Charles; Passages from the Life of a Philosopher; Publisher: Longman, Green, London (1864)
  31. ^ John Humphrys; John Humphrys Explains Bad English; The Guardian, Monday 20 October 2003
  32. ^ Cecil Hunt; My Favourite Howlers; Publisher: Ernest Benn, London (1951)
  33. ^ Cecil Hunt; More Hand-Picked Howlers; Illustrator: Blampied; Publisher: Methuen, (1938)