The Funny Dictionary (2018) relies heavily on archival material, such as The University Correspondent (a magazine from the late 1800s and early 1900s), an early monograph called English as She is Taught (1887), and historical newspapers.
Newspapers, in fact, provide an excellent source of howler compilations, especially since modern databases make searching for howlers relatively easy. Such databases include the National Library of Australia’s Trove, newspapers.com, and the Gale NewsVault.
Many of the howler compilations in old newspapers rely on earlier sources, especially The University Correspondent. But, occasionally, the old newspapers report howlers from other sources, including from schools that published a yearly crop of howlers, other compilers of howlers, and examination boards. I have sifted through some early Australian and British newspapers to share the following examples.
1. Charelville Times, 12 January 1940, 7.
It’s more fun to work out the source of the child’s confusion for yourself, but I will explain the first three howlers, to help you get started.
When the student wrote ‘St Augustine was important because he inverted people’, the student meant converted. Inverting people is something else entirely.
‘The convicts were wasteful, so Governor Phillip put them on rations, including himself’ is meant to suggest Governor Phillip also went on rations, just like the convicts. However, the student makes it sound like the convicts were eating Governor Phillip!
In ‘The bees fly about the countryside under their own power’, the question must be asked: how else would bees fly about? The idea that bees might have invented some artificial means of flying conjures some lovely imagery. Perhaps they fly on tiny flying bee-cycles?
2. Casino and Kyogle Courier and North Coast Advertiser, 16 April 1921, 6.
This anecdote provides two delightful examples of schoolboys thinking creatively about Bible verses. In the first example, the boy might have done better thinking about the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ rather than quoting Jesus’ words about divorce. In the second example, a boy would need a lot of spital indeed to cause a worldwide flood!
3. Sunshine Advocate, 22 April 1932, 1.
Some of the howlers in this crop are funnier than others. I quite like ‘Petroleum is a sort of wine’. Was the child thinking of port? Though, some cheap wines can taste like petrol. I also enjoy the mental image of a horse taking a child out on Sunday and ladies drinking tea from their hats.
4. Wyalong Advocate and Mining, Agricultural and Pastoral Gazette, 31 October 1908, 3.
I enjoy three examples from this collection of howlers — the idea of people writing on vermin (animals such as rats) as opposed to vellum; someone going to knight school (a school for knights rather than a night school for students after work); and the surprise logic that ‘Jacobite is a short name for James’.
5. Queensland Times, 19 September 1914, 9.
Here’s a short crop of howlers from the Queensland Times. You should be able to easily work out that the student, in the first example, meant the Great Barrier Reef, not the Great Barley Leaf. In the second example, the student meant masticate, not domesticate. In the final example, the student meant entomology, not etymology.
6. Gosford Times and Wyong District Advocate, 25 September 1924, 18.
Sometimes, it’s hard to believe a student howler is genuine and not a wisecrack. But, apparently, this child defined propaganda as proper gander.
7. Register (Adelaide) 22 September 1919, 6.
The first part of this article is reproduced because it is such a quaint way of describing the humour of school howlers:
‘Happy are those who have been endowed with the none-too-common sense of humour; and wise are they who cherish and cultivate the gift. It lights up the dark places of life—from the dread of the scaffold to the dull and dreary classroom; lightens the burden on the back and the load on the mind; and keeps down within reasonable limits the population of Bedlam.
On the other hand, the lack of it swells in the ranks of the unconscious humorists, who add so greatly to the gaiety of nations, whose ignorance is our bliss, and must be imputed to them some sort of righteousness. A gross unadorned mistake moves either our wrath or our pity or our contempt; but clothe it in motley, deck it out with incongruity, we smile and chuckle and howl, til wrath and pity flee, leaving us possessed of but one ululantic emotion.’
In the first howler extracted below, the child intended to refer to Geoffrey Chaucer, the father of English poetry. In the second, the child evidently means liver — though the description doesn’t exactly match. In the third, the child hedges their bets on duchess or doe, but is wrong on both counts.
8. Sunday Times, 16 October 1910, 28.
More cute than funny, these students provide some quaint definitions.
9. Hamilton Spectator, 7 June 1911, 4.
Sometimes, you need to think creatively to work out the source of a student’s confusion. Here, a boy shortened tomato to mato to get a martyr growing in the garden.
10. Mullumbimby Star, 28 August 1930, 3.
Two observations about this collection of howlers: Religion seems to be a topic that is disproportionately represented among school howlers, for whatever reason; and howlers can be an opportunity for people to learn, even native English speakers. For example, I didn’t know what a bier is until I read the boy’s description of Jesus touching the bear. The reference is to Luke 7:13-14: 'And he came and touched the bier [a movable frame on which a coffin is placed before burial] and they that bare him [the bearers] stood still. And he said, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise. And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother.'
11. Lachlander and Condobolin and Western Districts Recorder, 8 March 1940, 2.
Most of the howlers in this collection are obvious, but not the last: the child meant pupa instead of pauper but what did they mean instead of cupid?
12. Scrutineer and Berrima District Press, 18 November 1908, 2.
Sometimes, student howlers conjure impossible and fantastic mental images — such as the earth leaping over the sun and a leopard not wanting to be stripped.
13. Grenfell Record and Lachlan District Advertiser, 2 January 1912, 6.
It’s not always the children who make unconsciously humorous blunders. In these examples, the parents have misspelled or misheard common physical ailments to invent their own: Haricot veins rather than varicose veins; new Roger and Real raw jaw rather than neuralgia; Piper’s dance rather than St Vitus’ dance; dumb demoniacks rather than double pneumonia; aneroids in the nose rather than adenoids; and so on. The person who recorded these complaints couldn’t solve wax and curnels, but the parent evidently meant waxing kernel (swollen lymph glands, especially in the groins of children).
14. Woomelang Sun and Lascelles and Ouyen Advocate, 9 June 1914, 3.
This is a great little collection of school howlers. My favourite misspellings are system for cistern and filleted for filtered. But, to me, the funniest howlers below are the answers to the question ‘Why are ships useful?’ Some of the kids’ answers are examples of very creative lateral thinking. Australia — or, rather, Orsetralia, even gets a mention.
15. Numurkah Leader, 9 February 1918, 4.
There were several attempts by school children at defining referendum. But this was by far the funniest — a referee dome:
16. Huon and Derwent Times, 30 June 1938, 2.
A small collection of howlers, most notable for Great Britain exporting exiles (compare textiles).
17. Northam Advertiser, 1 September 1950, 1.
Another small collection of school howlers. Hydrophobia is actually a fear of water. A fear of foreign hotels is xenodochiophobia. In the final example, hostage is meant to be ostrich.