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To err is human

At this year’s Claremont High School graduation ceremony, many of the speeches touched on a common theme—mistakes. Fresh-faced students and seasoned administrators shared stories about the mistakes of Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs all echoing the old proverb: The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.

Some mistakes have longer-lasting consequences than others. In fact, when it comes to English, mistakes have led to new words, which have remained in our lexicon for centuries. Back when dictionaries were meticulously hand written, scribes sometimes messed up—they either misunderstood, mistranslated or simply miswrote words.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary there are at least 350 words in English dictionaries that come from typographical errors and hundreds more that came about through mishearing and mispronouncing. 

One example is ‘gravy,’ which came from the error of a 14th century translator. Originally from the Old French grané ‘sauce or stew,’ the ‘n’ was miswritten as a ‘u’ or ‘v,’ which led to the addition of ‘grave’ and ‘graue’ into our dictionary. If not for that simple error, we would be asking in-laws to pass the grany at Thanksgiving.  

The original Greek sittybos meaning ‘parchment label or table of contents’ was misread by Latin scribes who mistook the two t’s for l’s, leading to the modern ‘syllabus.’ The error was so embedded into our lexicon that speakers surmised (following Latin grammar rules) that the plural of the non-legitimate word was syllabi, leading to a second mistakenly formed word.

According to a New Yorker article, mistakes were sometimes committed on purpose. Encyclopedias used to create fictional words with believable definitions as a safeguard against plagiarism. If another competing publication came out the following year with the same false entry, it was certain that they had stolen the information.

These made-up terms came to be called Mountweazels, named for a fake entry into the 1975 edition of the “New Columbia Encyclopedia,” which falsely stated that Lillian Virginia Mountweazel was a famous fountain designer turned photographer. 

Probably the most cited example of a Mountweazel comes from the New Oxford American Dictionary. A staff writer invented the word ‘esquivalience’ to mean ‘the willful avoidance of one’s responsibilities.’ Shortly after, the word appeared in dictionary.com, which was touted as a gotcha moment for the NOAD. 

Aside from spelling and writing errors, there are other words that have been misused for so long that the mistake eventually becomes commonplace. This often occurs with words that closely resemble each other.

For example, the expression ‘self-deprecating’ was originally ‘self-depreciating.’ To ‘deprecate’ means to ‘pray for deliverance from,’ which makes it nonsensical when combined with ‘self.’ ‘Depreciate,’ on the other hand means to belittle or lessen the value of. Over time, the mistake of misusing ‘deprecate’ over ‘depreciate’ stuck. 

The same thing happened with ‘spit and image’ referring to God’s use of spit and dust to make Adam in his image. This expression—meaning to look exactly like another person—eventually became ‘spitting image.’

One mistake that remains a pet-peeve for many grammarians is the use of ‘graduate from’ instead of ‘to be graduated from.’ Nowadays very few people bat an eye at the sentence, Diego graduated from CHS, but those who remember the correct use of the verb stick to grammatically accurate, Diego was graduated from CHS.

According to linguist Steven Pinker, making mistakes influences how we speak in the moment. He notes that we humans experience an electrophysiological response that kicks in the second we realize we’ve made an error. Our instinct to blurt out an (oftentimes) course expression is referred to as cathartic swearing. Neuroscientists call this err-related negativity, while the non-scientific name is the ‘oh-shit’ response.

Through examples of language and life, it is evident that we never really know what the result of an error will be. Mistakes can lead to a great new discovery or the birth of a new word. And for those that are painful or do not lead to valuable life lessons, it’s best to indulge in a little cathartic swearing and quickly move on.