The Funny Dictionary: Illustrated, to be published by the National Library of Australia in 2017/8, is a book of genuine student bloopers, arranged in a dictionary format humorously illustrated with photographs from the Library’s pictorial collections. The book could more rightly be called a book of “Pullet Surprises”.

Examples of Pullet Surprises

A Pullet Surprise may be easier to explain, first, by example. Examples of Pullet Surprises are:

  • "We found it hard to understand his Scottish derelict" [dialect]
  • "The Rocky Mountain road was the most cynic of our entire trip" [scenic]
  • "The athlete was extremely proud of his psychic" [physique] (Greene, 11.)

Origins of "Pullet Surprise"

From these examples, you will see that a "Pullet Surprise" (a misunderstanding of "Pulitzer Prize") is a kind of humorous blunder. Amsel Greene coined the term in her 1969 book, Pullet Surprises. The term achieved notoriety through the works of Jack Smith — in particular, How to Win a Pullet Surprise (1982).

The phrase "Pullet Surprise" is usually applied to errors made by young school students. Greene used the term in order to fill the gaps left by other words for "blunder" (Greene, 11). For example, the words "bloopers", "bloomers", "flubs", "fluffs", "gaffes", and "boo-boos" all imply stupidity; yet many student errors are marvels of ingenuity and logic. The other popular word for glaring blunder, "howler", is technically too narrow: howlers would exclude errors that evoke a smile or chuckle rather than a howl of laughter. Pullet Surprise is an especially apt label. "Pullet" comes from Latin for pullus, meaning a young animal. A pullet's main meaning is "a young domestic hen", but it is also used figuratively for "a young or inexperienced person" (Oxford English Dictionary). This is an appropriate description for young and inexperienced school students who make the innocently humorous blunders; and their humorous blunders are always a "surprise".

According to Greene, she found the phrase "Pullet Surprise" when a fellow teacher had shared with her an essay in which the student had written: "In 1957, Eugene O'Neill won a Pullet Surprise." The student's statement probably refers to the Pulitzer Prize that O'Neill won for his autobiographical masterpiece Long Day's Journey Into Night (published in 1956 after O'Neill's death in 1953). The play was produced on stage to critical acclaim, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957. O'Neill had won three other Pulitzer Prizes for drama in the 1920s (for Beyond the Horizon in 1920, Anna Christie in 1922, and Strange Interlude in 1928).

Some people say the phrase "Pullet Surprise" is apocryphal; that it is "too good to be true" (for example, LN Morgan, "More Pleased Than Alarmed" (1954) 28(5) The Clearing House 308, 308; Edna Lue Furness, "Are We Victims of Linguaphobia?" (1958) 42(1) Modern Language Journal 20, 20). For example, in 2003, the Patrio News received the following letter:

"The joke is an old one, circulated for years and known to anyone who has attended educational workshops and in-service education programs. I heard it first in 1989 from a writing workshop teacher who claimed it had surfaced in the papers of her own high school students. Although actual student work can sometimes exhibit such howlers, this particular example has taken on an apocryphal quality" (Letter to the Editor, Patrio News, 17 May 2003, A07).

The earliest record of "Pullet Surprise" that I could find comes from the book Bigger and Better Boners, published under the pseudonym of Alexander Abingdon in 1952. The relevant howler appears on page 125: "A Pullet Surprise is given in America every year for the best writings." In their foreword, the editors say that the student howlers in their collection are "authentic student errors, not made-up gags or wisecracks, and have all come to us from apparently reliable sources". Other references to "Pullet Surprise" include:

  • 1956: Under the heading "Boners", there appears "Sinclair Lewis won the pullet surprise" (New York Board of Education, 38 High Points in the Work of the High Schools of New York City (1956) 72).
  • 1964: Verna Dieckman Anderson (ed), Readings in the Language Arts quotes at page 11: "an eighth-grade girl in our laboratory school wrote a paper in which she told how a composer had won a pullet surprise."
  • 1970: A tenth grade student in the top English class at Chino High writes: "Ernest Hemingway was an American author who won the pullet surprise" (53 Saturday Review (1970)).
  • 1995: Richard Lederer says English teacher Patricia Lee had asked students "What distinguished writing award did Harper Lee win for her novel, To Kill A Mockingbird?" One of her students wrote "a pullet surprise" (Patriot Ledger, 8 May 1995).

  • Given the frequency of references to "Pullet Surprise", the gaffe may be genuine; and it was probably first committed in 1917, soon after the first Pulitzer Prizes were awarded.

Types of Pullet Surprises

According to Greene, the various types of Pullet Surprises are:

1. Happily Unaware

In the first type of Pullet Surprise, the student mistakes one word for another that sounds or looks similar. The following funny student definitions are examples of the Happily Unaware type of Pullet Surprise:

  • "monetary: a place where monks live" [monastery]
  • "antithesis: something administered before surgery" [anesthetic, anesthetist]
  • "paradox: a lovely place to go when you die" [paradise] (Greene, 12.)

2. Uneasily Aware

In the second type of Pullet Surprise, the student confronts an unfamiliar word with all their mental resources in order to find meaning.

An example of the Uneasily Aware type of Pullet Surprise is the student who reasoned that "deciduous" must have something to with "decisiveness" or "deciding" when they defined deciduous as "able to make up one's mind quickly" (Greene, 13).

3. Nonchalant

In the third type of Pullet Surprise, the student has neither the confidence of the Happily Unaware nor the concern of the Uneasily Aware; their interpretations follow no obvious pattern and defy analysis. The following student definitions are examples:

  • "eulogy: study of the veins and muscles" [though, perhaps, urology?]
  • "prognosticate: force one into something"
  • "atheist: one of the white race"

4. Trusting

In the fourth type of Pullet Surprise, the student relies on "their ability to divine meanings from usage and context. Since an erroneous assumption drawn from one context is frequently confirmed by subsequent usages, correction may be long delayed" (Greene, 13). Students who make Pullet Surprises of the Trusting type are likely to defend strongly a meaning they have repeatedly taken for granted. For example, a student may read the word "prodigal" in this context: "His father gave a feast for the prodigal". They might assume "prodigal" means "favourite son" (it actually means "someone who spends money or resources recklessly or extravagantly"). Then, the student applies the word to a new context: "The various states nominated their prodigals for the vice-presidency" (Greene, 62).

Conclusion

Hopefully, now you will understand what is a "Pullet Surprise" and have a better understanding of what The Funny Dictionary: Illustrated is like. The book includes Pullet Surprises of all types, except the Nonchalant: the book is more useful to English language learners, and more fun for everyone, if you can work out the child’s thinking.

Troy Simpson

Selected References

Amsel Greene, Pullet Surprises (1969.

Richard Lederer, Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language (1987), especially Chapter 1, "Student Bloopers Win Pullet Surprises".

Jack Smith, "More On Pullet Surprises", Tuscaloosa News, 19 March 1973, 4.

Jack Smith, How To Win A Pullet Surprise (1982).

Jack Smith, "Pullet Surprise Mystery Deepens", Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal, 24 March 1985, 6G.