Do some language errors outshine their correct forms? That’s the view New Yorker and Random House alumnus Daniel Menaker has come around to after half a century of “writing, editing, copy editing, verbal irony (that addiction), and listening closely to conversation — my own and others’.”
Menaker has even coined a term for these beau-boos: He calls them “sveltes,” after the hopeful author whose story submission stated, “The zebras were grazing on the African svelte.” Spying the “inadvertent elegance” of this slush-pile error — the African veldt is indeed smooth, understated, lissome — Menaker began to lasso similar gaffes, each boasting a sort of cosmic suitability that transcends its incorrectness.
He presents these unintentionally ingenious misspellings in a witty book titled “The African Svelte.” The collection catches writers using their “vocal chords” to bemoan getting “stuck in the styx.” Other malapropmasters ply “unchartered waters” perfect for “naval gazing” — for “what is a navel if not a little ship,” writes Menaker, “afloat on the (sometimes vast) ocean of a tummy?” Some wait with “baited breath” to find out whether being “lack-toes intolerant” may cause “undo stress.”
Leavened by famously jittery drawings from Roz Chast, “The African Svelte” cleverly educes the “literally poetic justice” of “eeking out a living” or disguising your terrorist intent by “wearing a baklava.”
It’s hard to hide the stretch marks in a book this pregnant with meaning, which is why I wish Menaker had strained far less to trace the word origins undergirding his “meaningful mistakes.” “Like the soil we walk on,” he incants, “most of the words we speak and write hide secret kinds of life.” But hadn’t my tour guide warned me? In the book’s foreword, when Billy Collins inserts a butterfly pin through the author’s “healthy penchant for elaboration,” it’s no missed stake.
Allan Fallow is a writer and editor in Alexandria.
On Saturday at 6 p.m., Daniel Menaker will be at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Daniel Menaker
Illustrated by Roz Chast
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 225 pp. $20