The series, "The Book-Lover's Library", edited by Henry Wheatley, included this work by the editor: Literary Blunders, a Chapter in the History of Human Error, which was published by Elliot Stock in London in 1893. Its chapter headings are inviting: "Blunders in General", "Blunders of authors", "Blunders of Translators", "Bibliographical Blunders", "Lists of Errata", "Misprints", "Foreigners' English", and what turns out to be of the highest interest, to me: "Schoolboys' Blunders". Now admittedly some of the humor in recounting errors comes down a very long nose, and with a dryness exceeding the terms to describe "dry"--but the chapter on the blunders of children comes to us with a good nature, and is genuinely entertaining, and delightful.
It reminds me at once of Maurice Sendak (with Ruth Krauss in A Hole is to Dig) and Ambrose Bierce (Devil's Dictionary), and even a little bit of lemon-flavored Menckenosia (The American Language), though the author assures us that the examples he charitably shares are true, and in spite of some of their high and unintentional wit are all the work of children. This would make make the selection a sort of Borgesian/Biercian Sendakian insight of child's-play and blunder, a beautiful mix of occasional deep insight and naive assertion of quick-thought.
Here are some examples:
``What s Faith?--The quality by which we are enabled to believe that which we know is untrue.''
The whole Homeric question is condensed into the following answer: ``Some people say that the Homeric poems were not written by Homer, but by another man of the same name.''
One class of blunders is the confusion of similar-sounding words and names ("Nonconformists are said to be persons who cannot form anything").
Wheatley writes: "A still finer confusion of ideas is to be found in an answer reported by Miss Graham in the University Correspondent: ``Esau was a man who wrote fables, and who sold the copyright to a publisher for a bottle of potash.'' And from the same source, `A fort is a place to put men in, and a fortress a place to put women in".
"This is not the only book of its kind in the collection of beautiful misalignments by young scholars. There is also a little book entitled English as she is Taught, a sort of American version of the Blunders book, listing errors that emanate from similar-sounding words and ideas, resulting in pretty confusions. Wheatley selects the following examples: ``In Austria the principal occupation is gathering Austrich feathers", followed by the same boy with ``Ireland is called the Emigrant Isle because it is so beautiful and green.'' There is also ``Gorilla warfare was where men rode on gorillas" and ``The Puritans found an insane asylum in the wilds of America.'' ``Climate lasts all the time, and weather only a few days" and ``Sanscrit is not used so much as it used to be, as it went out of use 1500 B.C." and "The imports of a country are the things that are paid for; the exports are the things that are not" are all wonderful choices.
A biography of Jonah, written by an American schoolboy, begins: ``He was the father of Lot, and had two wives. One was called Ishmale and the other Hagher; he kept one at home, and he turned the other into the dessert, when she became a pillow of salt in the daytime and a pillow of fire at night.'' The sketch of Moses is equally unhistoric: ``Mosses was an Egyptian. He lived in an ark made of bullrushes, and he kept a golden calf and worshipped braizen snakes, and et nothing but kwales and manna for forty years. He was caught by the hair of his head, while riding under the bough of a tree, and he was killed by his son..."
``Wolsey was a famous general who fought in the Crimean War, and who, after being decapitated several times, said to Cromwell, Ah! if I had only served you as you have served me, I would not have been deserted in my old age.'
Wheatley continues in geography: "The following description of the Nile by a schoolboy is very fine: ``The Nile is the only remarkable river in the world. It was discovered by Dr. Livingstone, and it rises in Mungo Park.'' Constantinople is described thus: ``It is on the Golden Horn; a strong fortress; has a University, and is the residence of Peter the Great. Its chief building is the Sublime Port.'' Amongst the additions to our geographical knowledge may be mentioned that Gibraltar is ``an island built on a rock,'' and that Portugal can only be reached through the St. Bernard's Pass ``by means of sledges drawn by reindeer and dogs.'' ``Turin is the capital of China,'' and ``Cuba is a town in Africa very difficult of access.''
"The child who gave the following brilliant answer to the question, ``What was the character of Queen Mary?'' must have suffered herself from the troubles supposed to be connected with the possession of a stepmother: `She was wilful as a girl and cruel as a woman, but'' (adds the pupil) ``what can you expect from any one who had had five stepmothers? One of the finest answers ever given in an examination was that of the boy who was asked to repeat all he knew of Sir Walter Raleigh. This was it: ``He introduced tobacco into England, and while he was smoking he exclaimed, `Master Ridley, we have this day lighted such afire in England as shall never be put out.' Can that, with any sort of justice, be styled a blunder?"
1. English as she is taught being genuine answers to examination questions in our public schools 2d ed. collected by Caroline B. Le Row; with a commentary thereon by Mark Twain [pseud.]and published in 1887. Full text here, from the Internet Archive.
And as long as we're at it, here's a little alphabetical list of some interesting words that appear in the publication:
ABORIGINES, a system of mountains.
ALIAS, a good man in the Bible.
AMENABLE, anything that is mean.
AMMONIA, the food of the gods.
ASSIDUITY, state of being an acid.
AURIFEROUS, pertaining to an orifice.
CAPILLARY, a little caterpillar.
CORNIFEROUS, rocks in which fossil corn is found.
EMOLUMENT, a headstone to a grave.
EQUESTRIAN, one who asks questions.
EUCHARIST, one who plays euchre.
FRANCHISE, anything belonging to the French.
IDOLATER, a very idle person.
IPECAC, a man who likes a good dinner.
IRRIGATE, to make fun of.
MENDACIOUS, what can be mended.
MERCENARY, one who feels for another.
PARASITE, a kind of umbrella.
PARASITE, the murder of an infant.
PUBLICAN, a man who does his prayers in public.
TENACIOUS, ten acres of land.
REPUBLICAN, a sinner mentioned in the Bible.
PLAGIARIST, a writer of plays.
DEMAGOGUE, a vessel containing beer and other liquids.
ASPHYXIA, a grumbling, fussy temper.
QUARTERNIONS, a bird with a flat beak and no bill, living in New Zealand.
QUARTERNIONS, the name given to a style of art practiced by the Phoenicians.
QUARTERNIONS, a religious convention held every hundred years.