A Jokes Book
The Funny Dictionary is a book of genuine mistakes, perpetuated by school children. More broadly described as a book of humorous blunders, The Funny Dictionary belongs to one of the most persistent and popular of all book forms.
The oldest-known jokes book is a Greek compilation of fourth century jokes called Philogelos (‘laughter-loving’). The age of Philogelos, and who wrote it, is uncertain; some of the stories in Philogelos may date even further back than ancient Greece, possibly to Buddhist writings and even to stories from ancient Egypt.
A Jokes Book of Blunders
Several jokes in Philogelos are blunder stories. Some of those blunders are blunders of action. These include the story of the man who sat before a mirror to see how he looked when asleep; and of the man who, being told that a raven can live 200 years, bought one to see whether the statement is true.
As well as blunders of action, Philogelos includes blunders of speech. An example is the story of the man who declared, after a narrow escape from drowning, ‘I will never enter the water again until I have learned how to swim’. But perhaps the best of the blunders of speech in Philogelos is the story of a son who took the body of his dead father to the embalmers. When the son returned to the embalmers to collect the body, he saw several bodies in the same place. The embalmer asked the son if his father had any peculiarity by which his body might be recognised. The son replied: ‘He had a cough.’
History of Blunders Books
Blunder stories also appear in numerous collections of witty remarks and writings from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The compilers of these facetiae include respected scholars, who took their material from oral as well as written sources, including medieval collections of ‘exempla’.
Exempla are moral anecdotes, real or fictitious, used by medieval preachers to illustrate a point. The scholarly interest in humorous and witty anecdotes soon spread to the middle classes, who read the anecdotes and witticisms for relaxation and amusement. In the 1600s, there was a rapid increase in the number of so-called jest books. These jest books, from England, Germany, France, and Italy, contain a large proportion of blunder stories.
For example, Robert Chamberlain’s Booke of Bulls (1636) tells the story of a man who said he had seen a unicorn with two horns; a man who bragged that his master could kill an ox and a half each day; and the man who accused someone of stealing pears from a plum tree.
The Funny Dictionary employs similar humour as these early blunder books and jest books by collecting a special kind of blunder, known as the ‘howler’.
A Jokes Book of Howlers
Howlers are unconsciously humorous or amusing replies to exam and essay questions. The howler branch of the blunder family tree had become established in Britain by the late nineteenth century. One of the earliest appearances of the word ‘howler’ is from a book review published in an early British periodical, the Athenaeum: ‘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.’ The word howler evidently comes from the howls of laughter from those hearing the student’s unconscious mistake.
The History of Howlers
There were a few compilations of howlers in the late 1800s, though they do not always use the word howler. One of the best of these compilations is English As She Is Taught (1887), compiled by Caroline B Le Row, with a commentary by Mark Twain. Some of the howlers reproduced in The Funny Dictionary come from Le Row’s compilation, such as the definitions of amenable (anything that is mean), burglarise (to make burglars), and plagiarist (a writer of plays).
Another early collection of howlers is Henry J Barker’s Original English (1889). Original English includes several full school essays. We have reproduced edited versions of these essays in The Funny Dictionary.
But the golden era of howler books is the late 1920s and early 1930s, the period of the Great Depression. In August 1928, the prolific compiler of howlers, Cecil Hunt (1902–1954), published Howlers through his British employer-publisher Ernest Benn. Hunt had been jotting down howlers for years, filling exercise books with hundreds of examples. Howlers was an immediate bestseller. It sold 10,000 copies even before publication and more than 9000 copies in just one week, the week before Christmas 1928.
A second collection of howlers, Fresh Howlers (1930), was as popular as the first collection. There then followed 10 more books of howlers by Hunt. Some of Hunt’s Howlers books of the 1930s were reissued as late as the 1960s. In 1985, Russell Ash published a book of howlers based on Hunt’s earlier Howlers books.
1066 And All That
Around the same time, probably influenced by the success of Hunt’s Howlers, WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman published the comic classic of English literature, the parody history textbook 1066 And All That. 1066 And All That has sold more than 4 million copies since its publication in 1930. 1066 And All That is a mix of schoolroom howlers, deliberate distortions of history, and clever puns. One of the most popular parts of 1066 And All That is the series of spoof exam papers that the authors included at the end of several chapters. We have drawn inspiration from 1066 And All That for our own mock review exercises, based on The Funny Dictionary, which you can download free from our website at www.the-funny-dictionary.com.
In 1931, Viking Press published Boners, compiled under the pseudonym Alexander Abingdon. Boners is the American word for howlers. Like Hunt’s Howlers and Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 And All That, Viking Press’s Boners was a mega-selling book. It was the New York Times’ fourth bestselling non-fiction book in the USA for the year 1931. The book went through four printings in just two months. Boners was so successful that three more volumes were rushed to publication in 1931. These sequels, especially More Boners, were also very successful.
Boners continued to sell well for decades. It was reprinted in 1997 and again in 2007. Boners is also significant because it launched the career of Dr Seuss, who illustrated Boners and More Boners, and who would go on to become the best-selling children’s author of all time.
Boners in the USA and Howlers and 1066 And All That in Britain were the progenitors of many successful similar howlers books and parody history books, including, most recently, Funny English Errors and Insights: Illustrated (2010) by Troy Simpson.
Many of the howlers in the 1930s books trace to an even earlier source. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, London University ran an annual competition for a magazine called The University Correspondent. Every year, starting in 1892, The University Correspondent would call for the best examination howlers and award a prize to the best submission, usually One Guinea. Some of the definitions in The Funny Dictionary are based on the howlers collected in The University Correspondent.
Types of Howlers
Described even more specifically, The Funny Dictionary is a collection of several specific kinds of howler. The first kind of howler is a howler that uses the wrong word because the howler’s perpetrator has misunderstood that word’s true meaning. An example from The Funny Dictionary is ‘A cadet is a boy who carries golf clubs’, where the student actually meant caddy.
The second kind of howler in The Funny Dictionary is the misspelled word. An example from The Funny Dictionary is ‘An abdomen is the organ that contains the interestines’ (intestines).
In the third kind of howler, the howler’s maker has misheard the relevant word. For example, again from The Funny Dictionary, the student who wrote that ‘Barbarians are things put in bicycle wheels to make them run smoothly’ had misheard ball bearings as barbarians.
The fourth kind of howler is based more on confused ideas than confused words. For example, in The Funny Dictionary, adjective is defined as ‘something that describes something, for example doctor because a doctor describes medicine’.
The fifth kind of howler resembles a bull (or Irish bull). A bull is a statement that contradicts itself amusingly and unconsciously or involves an inconsistency or circularity unperceived by the speaker or writer. Bulls are easier to explain by example than by definition. A bull is like the Irishman’s rope that had only one end because the other end had been cut off. An example of a bull-type howler from The Funny Dictionary is ‘The feudal system is a legal system that said if one man killed another, the man in the family of the murdered could kill the murderers, and so on’.
What Makes a Howler Funny?
Sometimes, a howler’s humour comes from understatement or from what is left unsaid. An example from The Funny Dictionary of this more subtle kind of howler is the definition of thief as ‘a person who likes to keep people’s things for them in their absence’.
Yet another kind of howler is not really a blunder at all. Rather, it is a cute or amusing way of expressing things. These howlers might provoke more of a smile than a howl of laughter, such as The Funny Dictionary's definition of wind as ‘air only pushier’.
In The Funny Dictionary, the howlers from these categories have been chosen carefully according to several criteria. To be funny, a howler must be genuine. In other words, someone, somewhere, at some time, must have actually said or written the howler. Unlike other comic dictionaries, such as Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary or Charles Wayland Town’s Foolish Dictionary, and unlike the ancient blunder books, The Funny Dictionary contains only genuine howlers; we have not invented the dictionary’s howlers.
Second, as well as being genuine, a howler must be unintentional. A student who has written something deliberately to be funny has made a joke, not a howler. In The Funny Dictionary, we have included only howlers that we believe are unintentional.
Third, funny howlers often have a double meaning. For example, consider the following classic howler from Colin McIlwaine’s Selection of Schoolboy Howlers (1928): ‘In Christianity a man can only have one wife. This is called monotony.’ In this howler, the intended meaning is ‘monogamy’; the unintended meaning is ‘monotony’. The Funny Dictionary includes several howlers like this that contain a double meaning.
Fourth, a really good howler accidentally contains some element of truth or insight. Take these examples from The Funny Dictionary:
SAVAGES n. people who don’t know what wrong is until missionaries show them. See also, MISERY.
MISERY n. someone who travels to remote places to convert SAVAGES into CHRISTIANS.
Finally, truly funny howlers have innocence. A howler from an innocently muddled 7-year-old is much funnier than the same howler from a 17-year-old college student who should know better.
Howlers by people from non-English speaking backgrounds have been excluded from The Funny Dictionary. The best howlers happen when English can trip even native English speakers.
The deliberate process of putting a thought into writing also contributes to a howler’s humour. Thus, The Funny Dictionary includes more written howlers than slips of the tongue.
No attempt is made at explaining the definitions. You will have more fun if you can work out the humour for yourself.
Although we make no overt attempt in this book to explain the howlers, you might like to look for some funny drawings that help convey the humour in some of the more subtle specimens (web version only).
The book presents the howlers in a dictionary format to add another layer to the howlers’ humour — readers expect a dictionary to be serious; the funny definitions deflate that expectation. The juxtaposition of entries, and some of the cross-references, also adds, we hope, to the book’s humour.
Many of the howlers reproduce the original text word-for-word. Sometimes, we have taken artistic licence. But we have always preserved the substance of the howler.
Words and phrases in BOLD TYPE LIKE THIS are crossreferences. The words in bold might appear slightly differently from the entry to which the bold words refer, but the reference is similar enough to let you locate the entry easily.