Grammar Gremlins: The African Svelte

The Gremlins and I recently discovered a book that offers great fun for word lovers, Daniel Menaker’s The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Make Surprising Sense. Long ago, while working as an editor at The New Yorker, Menaker ran across (in a submitted “fiction story”) the phrase “The zebras were grazing on the African svelte.” This spurred his collection of what were at first just funny mistakes, but then grew into a special category of wrong words that nevertheless seemed right in an out-of-the-box, off-the-wall sort of way.

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Menaker says that he lost that first list, remembering only the African svelte that started it, but a few years ago he began collecting again. He considers these “sveltes,” as he calls them, to be a subcategory of the “eggcorn,” which Menaker defines as “a mistake in spelling or pronunciation that sounds or reads like the correct spelling or pronunciation of the word or phrase being misused and bears an amusing and often fitting relationship to its origin.” A svelte must appear in print (up to and including email and web pages) and therefore be visual as opposed to simply auditory.

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The African Svelte lists about a hundred of these amusing discoveries, beginning with “from the gecko,” an apparent convergence of Gieco insurance advertising with the slang phrase “from the get-go” (to which Word offered to change it). As with all his sveltes, Menaker does some etymological excavation, digging for a relationship between the svelte and the word or phrase it attempts to replace.

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Some of my favorites in the collection include “I am sobbing wet,” “kneed in the walnuts” (from a baking recipe, not a martial arts complaint), “amphibious pitcher makes debut” (certainly an asset for some teams), “The Russian takeover of Crimea is a feta com plea,” “a last-stitch effort,” “self of steam,” “eek out a living,” “lack-toes intolerant,” “pass mustard,” “esprit decor,” “ultraviolent radiation,” “wrangle an invitation,” “spreading like wildflowers,” “blessing in the skies,” and “horse of a different collar.”

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Somewhere along the line, Menaker discovered that quite a few of these odd phrases are also the names of rock bands, and he provides a list (included with svelte number 70, “garbidge station”) of some of his favorites, several of which are hilariously offensive. I particularly liked the relatively polite “Linoleum Blownapart.”

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Menaker does lament, as do I, that some of these sveltes (for example, “wrangle an invitation”) seem to be gradually creeping into accepted usage. But language does change, no matter how hard some of us may fight. And modern technology no doubt speeds up the process, far beyond what past generations have seen. “The Internet,” Menaker suggests, “is to English (and other languages and all information, for that matter) as Vishnu is to the world: creator and destroyer.”

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For lovers of words, their relationships, and their ventures into the unknown (as well as occasional illustrations by Roz Chast), a journey through The African Svelte is a treat.

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