Dictionary of Blunders


I’ve recently been given a copy of this little book, which appears to have been published about 1880 (no author’s name is given, and it’s undated) by Whittaker & Co., London. In fact even the title is in some doubt as the cover gives the title as above, but inside it appears as “A Dictionary of Daily Blunders, containing A Collection of Mistakes often made in Speaking and Writing”. It can’t be earlier than 1880, because there is a reference to the Queen’s Speech of 20 May in that year: “I invite your careful notice to the important questions of policy connected with the future of South Africa”. This usage is deprecated, correcting it to “I invite you carefully to notice …”

The most interesting thing about the book is not in many cases the actual usages criticized (as we do not know the author, we cannot know what authority he – I don’t expect for a moment that it was a ‘she’ – had for his statements, other than his personal likes and dislikes), but the fact that the same usages that are heavily criticized today, as if they were recent solecisms, also appear in this book. For instance,

Aggravate has not quite the same meaning as irritate, though sometimes used for it, as “Don’t aggravate me”.

Allege is not properly spelt alledge, though the error is common.

And one I often received when I was at the BBC:

Americanisms are errors, and as such should be avoided. For instance, vise for vice, center for centre, Savior for Saviour, fiber for fibre, etc.

(I’m surprised that the writer is not critical of the use of etc following a list started with ‘for instance’!)

There are some interesting comments on pronunciation, one of which in particular caught my attention:

Byron. The poet called himself Birn, not Byron.

This ties in with the post about Gordon Brown’s pronunciation of iron which John Wells wrote a few weeks ago, here. My late wife, who was Scottish, distinguished the metal from the flattening implement by her syllabification. To my shame, I cannot remember which was which, but perhaps a reader of this has a similar experience to share …


  1. HNY Graham
    Isnt Birn going to puzzle some of your readers besides me. Why dont you give the ph’netic’ly literate a transcription of what you take it to mean?

  2. Sorry, Jack – I was merely reproducing exactly what appears in the book. I take it that the author intends ‘birn’ to mean /baɪrn/ rather than /ˈbaɪrən/ or /ˈbaɪərən/, which he writes with the usual orthography.

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