The Funny Dictionary: Illustrated, to be published by the National Library of Australia in 2018, is a book of howlers. But what, exactly, is a “howler”?
What’s a Howler?
"Howler" is a British word. Broadly speaking, a howler is a kind of blunder. A howler is like, but not exactly the same as, other members of the blunder family. The blunder family includes bloomers, bloopers, breaks, bulls, flubs, fluffs, gaffes, and similar words, each with a slightly different meaning. Compared to some other members of the blunder family, the word howler is quite young.
Howler, in the sense of a blunder, traces to the 19th century.1 For example, "howler" appears in a book review published in an early British periodical, the Athenaeum:2
"In no examination papers which it has been his evil fate to sit in judgment on has any examiner met with more monstrous 'howlers' than crowd these pages".
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a howler is "a glaring blunder". Australia's national dictionary, the Macquarie Dictionary, likewise defines a howler as "an especially glaring and ludicrous blunder". A blunder implies ignorance, carelessness, or stupidity; evidently, the word howler comes from the "howls" of laughter from those hearing the stupid mistake.3
But the word howler also has a narrower meaning. It’s this narrower meaning of howler that I want to talk about.
Narrowly, the word howler is applied to unconsciously humorous or amusing replies to exam and essay questions in school, college, and university.4
In this sense, a howler need not be a glaring blunder. It need not even be a blunder at all. An amusing exam response can evoke but a smile, and not howls of laughter, and still count as a howler.
Howlers in this narrower sense come in several types. I’ve listed some of the most common types of howlers below, though these categories aren’t comprehensive; and a howler can belong to more than one category.
Types of Howlers
Type 1. Misunderstanding words
"A cadet is a boy who carries golf clubs" misunderstands "cadet" as "caddy"
This first type of howler happens when someone uses the wrong word because they have misunderstood that word's true meaning. Examples are:
A barrister is a thing which is put up in the street to keep the crowds back.6
A cadet is a boy who carries golf clubs.7
Every car is equipped with a corroborator.8
Type 2. Misspelling words
The second type of howler happens when someone mispells the word:
The barons made King John sing Magna Charta.9
Curiously enough, Don Bradman did not seem comfortable for the first few minuets.10
I was unrolled before I had been in the Scouts a month.11
Type 3. Mishearing words
"Barbarians are things put in bicycle wheels to make them run smoothly". Here, the child misheard "ball bearings" as "barbarians".
In the third type of howler, the howler's perpetrator has misheard the relevant word:
There are 2 autumns in the molecule.12
Barbarians are things put in bicycle wheels to make them run smoothly.13
In the Olympic games they ran races, jumped, and hurled the biscuits.14
Type 4. Confusing ideas
The fourth kind of howler happens when someone confuses not words, but ideas:
Wind is that which the dust blows about the street.15
Eclipses are of 3 kinds: an annular eclipse comes once a year, a partial eclipse goes on part of the time only, but a total eclipse lasts forever.16
In Holland people make use of water power to drive their windmills.17
Type 5. Unperceived inconsistency
This fifth type of howler resembles the kind of blunder known as "bulls". It is a statement that contradicts itself amusingly and unconsciously or involves an inconsistency unperceived by the speaker or writer. It is like the Irishman's rope that had only one end because the other end had been cut off:
A baby is the most useful mammal because it will be a great help to its family when it grows up.18
Syncopation is emphasis on a note which is not in the piece.19
A toadstool is a thing that looks like a mushroom then if you eat it you die and you know it is not a mushroom.20
Type 6. Understatement
"Sir Winston Churchill invented the V-sign to encourage people. It is different today." Churchill later discovered the "V-sign" can be offensive to the working classes.
Sometimes, a howler's humour comes from understatement or from what is left unsaid. Examples of this sixth, more subtle, kind of howler are:
A railway station is a place where we wait for trains.21
Sir Winston Churchill invented the V-sign to encourage people. It is different today.22
Picasso is a modern painter who has to tell people what he means. In the old days they put it in the picture.23
Type 7. Cuteness
"Dust is mud with the juice squeezed out" is just cute
This seventh kind of howler is not really a blunder at all. Rather, it is a cute or amusing way of expressing matters:
A sob is when a feller don’t mean to cry and it bursts out all by itself.24
A fan is a thing to brush the warm off you with.25
Dust is mud with the juice squeezed out.26
Causes and Effects
You can see from this list that the causes of howlers vary. Sometimes, a howler is due to poor spelling, sometimes to poor hearing, and sometimes for other reasons.
The source of the humour in howlers also varies. Sometimes, you might be laughing at the perpetrator of the howler. At other times, the stimilus for laughter comes from something else — for example, you might be laughing at the English language itself. For me, the funniest howlers happen when the misunderstanding, understatement, or other cause, conveys a truth (albeit accidentally).
The humour in a howler depends on the reader or hearer possessing relevant knowledge. For example, to understand the humour in the Winston Churchill "v-sign" quote, you need to be able to picture the gesture that the maker of the howler had in mind: Winston Churchill's v-sign started as two fingers pointing skyward with palms facing in;27 but when he discovered the gesture was offensive to the working class, Churchill changed the gesture to palms facing out.
Above all, the humour in a howler must be unconscious. The humour cannot be deliberate or concocted.
Howlers can be on lots of different topics, enough for compilers to dedicate whole books of howlers to howlers on discrete subjects, such as religion28 and geology.29
The Funny Dictionary: Illustrated is unique in the way the howlers have been compiled, juxtaposed with cross-references, and presented in an illustrated dictionary format.
1 Walter Jerrold, Bulls, Blunders, and Howlers (1928) 9.
2 Athenaeum, 1 March 1890, 275.
3 Walter Jerrold, Bulls, Blunders, and Howlers (1928) 9.
4 Walter Jerrold, Bulls, Blunders, and Howlers (1928) 9.
5 Some of these types have been helpfully classified in Ben Trovato, Best Howlers (1970) 7-8.
6 Quoted in “Howlers” 4(2) New Zealand Railways Magazine, 1 June 1929.
7 Quoted in Cecil Hunt, Fresh Howlers (1930) 115.
8 Quoted in Amsel Greene, Pullet Surprises (1969) 21.
9 Quoted in Sun, 27 February 1914, 5.
10 Quoted in Cecil Hunt, Hand-picked Howlers (1937) 8.
11 Quoted in Cecil Hunt, Latest Howlers (1934) 73.
12 Quoted in University Correspondent, 1 January 1921, 10.
13 Quoted in University Correspondent, 1 January 1921, 10.
14 Quoted in Oakland Tribune, 1 September 1931, 26 (shortened).
15 Quoted in University Correspondent, 24 December 1898, 829.
16 Quoted in University Correspondent, 1 January 1923, 12.
17 Quoted in University Correspondent, 1 January 1924, 9.
18 Quoted in Duluth News-Tribune, 12 December 1915, 6.
19 Quoted in Oakland Tribune, 22 February 1930, 24.
20 Quoted in University Correspondent, 1 January 1931, 7.
21 Quoted in University Correspondent, 1 January 1927, 10.
22 Quoted in FAC Lawrence, Classic Classroom Clangers (1987) 32.
23 Quoted in Cecil Hunt, My Favourite Howlers (1951) 120.
24 Quoted in New York Times, 6 November 1894, 4.
25 Quoted in Patriot, 23 December 1869, 1.
26 Quoted in New York Times, 6 November 1894, 4.
27 See, for example, Argus (Australia), 22 July 1941, 1.
28 For example, Robin Williamson, Holy Howlers (1987) and Patricia J Hunt, Holy Howlers (1999).
29 Such as WD Ian Rolfe, Geological Howlers (1980)