howler is a glaring blunder, typically an amusing one. Eric Partridge’s ‘A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English’ (1951) 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.’ Another common interpretation of this usage is that a howler is a mistake fit to make one howl with laughter.

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. There are other colloquial English words for howler, 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.

Boner is a colloquialism that means much the same as howler, 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. ‘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, 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.’

Mathematicians sometimes speak of howlers, mainly in the form of an error which leads innocently, but inappropriately, to a correct result. 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. However, in the terminology of Willard V. O. Quine, that would be a veridical paradox (produces a result that appears absurd but is demonstrated to be true nevertheless), whereas sophisms and fallacies would be falsidical paradoxes (establishes a result that not only appears false but actually is false, due to a fallacy in the demonstration).

Typically such definitions of the term howler or boner do not specify the mode of the error; a howler could be a solecism (a phrase which trespasses grammatical boundaries), a malapropism (use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound), 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 ‘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 appear to 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.’ Such specimens may variously be based on mondegreens (mishearing or misinterpretation), or they might be derived from misunderstandings of fact by the elders, teachers or communities. Not all howlers originate with the pupil.

A possibly fictitious example appears in ‘Poaching in Excelsis,’ apparently written in part at least by G. K. Menzies. It expresses a Scottish poacher’s stupefied reaction to a newspaper report that ‘Two men were fined £120 apiece for poaching a white rhinoceros.’ That Scot spoke as one skilled in his own field, and interpreted the report in a perspective that was bounded by his experience of having struggled to carry off a poached stag, hence the howler; it had little to do with his own intelligence or competence as a poacher in Scotland. He simply had no idea that poaching rhinos in Africa differed qualitatively as well as quantitatively from poaching small game in Scotland.

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.

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.

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. 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.

Sometimes, especially in oppressed peoples, such wit takes on an ironic turn and the butt of the stories then becomes one’s own culture. Very likely such mock self-mockery gave rise to the term ‘Irish bull’ (a ludicrous, incongruent or logically absurd statement, generally unrecognized as such by its author) in works such as Samuel Lover’s novel ‘Handy Andy.’ Similarly the Yiddish stories of the ‘wise men’ of the town of Chelm 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.

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, up to the present. Stories of the ‘Wise Men of Gotham’ are prominent mediaeval 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 mediaeval times and since the time of the alleged event in Gotham, it has appeared in Afrikaans comics of the mid-twentieth century, 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.’

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.

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, 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, 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 rationalizations that arise in the course 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.

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. 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 satirized 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.’

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. 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. 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.

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.’ 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.

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