April 24, 2011

Just blame etaoin shrdlu

HANDS UP ALL THOSE who want to know difference between a lapsus linguae and a lapsus calami. (Pause for hand raising.)...(Another pause)...(Final pause) Well, I’m very disappointed.

I might have to tell you anyway, so please sit down at the back, there. I have taken the precaution of locking the doors. You can’t leave. Thank you.

Now, for your edification, lapsus is Latin for an error, a slip, or a lapse. Linguae in the same language means “of the tongue.” So a lapsus linguae is a slip of the tongue, as when you call out the name Flossie passionately in the middle of the night and your girl friend is called Bertha.

A lapsus calami is a different kind of slip. This time it’s a slip of the calamus, or pen. For years I thought that calami, the genitive form of calamus, was derived from the ink of the cuttlefish, a marine animal otherwise known in its edible form as calamari, but it turns out that a calamus is the Latin name for a reed, or cane, or anything made from those objects, such as a pen.

A lapsus calami can have consequences far more serious than those that arise from a lapsus linguae, not only because it is written in black and white, and therefore cannot be denied as a lapsus of the listener, but it also lasts a lot longer, as when you send a “congratulations on your pregnancy” card to an old friend who isn’t actually pregnant but has suddenly developed a passion for Belgian chocolates.

Anyway, what I wanted to say is that in the old days when I was a newspaperman, a lapsus calami was very often caused by the printer’s devil, a fellow called etaoin shrdlu.

This was in the days of hot lead, of course. Yes, I know, I know, you look at me sitting here so suave and debonair and say to yourself “He can’t be old enough to remember the days of hot lead,” but he is, and none the worse for it.

Every line of type in the newspaper was cast on the aptly named Linotype machine, a little foundry in its own right, and if the Linotype operator made a typing error, a lapsus digitae, he or she simply ran his fingers over the line of keys to abort the line, or slug, as it was known, in a hurry. And etaoin shrdlu was just how the keys lined up on the keyboard.

The compositor was supposed to spot and remove these incorrect slugs, but compositors being what they are, inherently dozy and further dulled from the fumes of the Linotype machine, they often slipped up (lapsus compositae), and so the words etaoin shrdlu frequently found their way into print and became well known to newspaper readers.

Nowadays, it would be hard to read more than a few words of digital media without coming across a lapsus calami. People just don’t care about spelling or grammar any more, and the internet is cluttered with examples of lapsus twitteri, lapsus facebookeri, and lord knows what otheri.

And what, you may ask has this to do with boats? Well, nothing, of course. Surely that’s obvious, isn’t it? Just because some people have boats and other people write about boats, it doesn’t mean that the whole world revolves around boats. But as a matter of fact I did start out with a thought about boats. I was drawing up a list of possible names for boats and etaoin shrdlu suggested itself to me. So there.

Okay, I’m going to unlock the doors now. You’re dismissed. Don’t get killed in the rush.

Today’s Thought

The most successful column is one that causes the reader to throw down the paper in a peak of fit.
— William Safire

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #190
A boat is said to be on soundings when she is within the 100-fathom line. In water deeper than 100 fathoms it was inconvenient in bygone days to sound with a lead-line. So when a ship sailed out to sea beyond the 100-fathom line, she was said to be off-soundings.

“John, don’t let my father see you kissing me.”
“But I’m not kissing you.”
“Thought I’d warn you just in case.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Micky-T said...

Ahh, the typo. You explain it so well.

And right on subject to the comment I'd been planning on sending this week. I just finished reading your wonderful book Small Boat to Freedom and enjoyed it very much. I must say what helped just the tiniest little bit was I too used to own and sail a boat named Freelance, and you sailed right throgh some of my old stomping grounds. I truly enjoyed the book and it will be a part of my next boats library.

In 1987 right after you and your family sailed past Antigua I had the opportunity to live in that region of the tropics for four or five years aboard my own little boat Caprifol which had white painted canvas decks. I wanted to share with you my favorite line. "I wish they could have experienced this delightful night of sailing in the warm tropics, where the stars were so brilliant that they made a faint shadow if you held you hand over Freelance's white deck, and where the wind was as warm and gentle as a lover's caress."

You or your, it's a minor offence. I'm sure you wrote your instead of you, maybe you'll want to take it up with The Lion Press. ha ha.

One more thing, how can anything be written in black and white? It's either written in black on white or I suppose it could be written in white on black.

John Vigor said...

Ah, Micky-T, etaoin shrdlu is everywhere, but I can't blame him this time. Nor can I blame the publisher. It was my mistake. And my simple defense is that we all make mistakes. In which regard, I may point out that it's The Lyons Press, not the Lion Press. Furthermore, the newspapers I worked for were all black and white and read all over. Groan. Sorry. Sometimes I can't help myself.

John V.

Micky-T said...

Oh my, I did leave a few lapsus digitae didn't I?

Or should that be digitae's?