The element of confusion

A graphic that appeared on Facebook yesterday:


Versions of this are available as t-shirts from a wide assortment of suppliers, with various atomic numbers on them. This one has 29, the atomic number of copper (Cu).

Um here represents confusion. In other contexts it’s a hesitation noise, often viewed as a disfluency, a kind of error.

But consider Michael’s Erard’s 1997 book Um …: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean:


From the website for the book:

This original and entertaining book is a natural history of things we wish we didn’t say (but do), as well as a look at what happens in American culture (and others) when we do (and wish we didn’t).

Covering a vast array of verbal blunders, from Spoonerisms to malapropisms to “uh” and “um,” linguist and author Erard creates a unique narrative blend of science, history, pop culture, and politics that gets at what really matter when we speak — and when we listen.

One exceptional chapter is about where the notion that good public speaking is always umless comes from; another chapter explains why Sigmund Freud (and a lot of other people in late 19th century Vienna) were obsessed with errors. What do “uh” and “um” really mean? And can we do with out them? Another chapter looks at the media empire that Kermit Schafer created from bloopers.

Erard looks at errors through people who work with them in one way or another. In fact, I get a chapter in the book, as a notable “blunder maven”.

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