What is a Howler?

“Howler” is a British word. A Howler is a kind of blunder. A Howler is like, but not the same as, other members of the blunders family. The blunders family includes bloomers, bloopers, breaks, bulls, flubs, fluffs, gaffes, and similar words, each slightly different. Compared to some other members of the blunders family, the word Howler is relatively young.

In the sense of a blunder, Howler traces to the 19th century. For example, “Howler” appears in a book review published in an early British periodical, the Athenaeum:

“In no examination papers which it has been his evil fate to sit in judgment on has any examiner met with more monstrous ‘Howlers’ than crowd these pages”.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a Howler is “a glaring blunder”. Australia’s national dictionary, The Macquarie Dictionary, likewise defines a Howler as “an especially glaring and ludicrous blunder”. A blunder implies ignorance, carelessness, or stupidity; evidently, the word Howler comes from the “howls” of laughter from those hearing the stupid mistake.

But the word Howler also has a narrower meaning. Narrowly, Howler is applied to unconsciously humorous or amusing replies to exam and essay questions in school, college, and university. In this sense, a Howler need not be a glaring blunder. It need not even be a blunder at all. An amusing reply can evoke a smile and still count as a Howler.

Howlers, in this narrower sense, come in several types. We have categorised some of the most common types of Howlers as follows. These categories are not comprehensive, and a Howler can belong to more than one category.

Types of Howlers

Type 1. Misunderstanding words

This first type of Howler happens when someone uses the wrong word because they have misunderstood that word’s true meaning. Examples are:

  • A barrister is a thing that is put up in the street to keep the crowds back.
  • A cadet is a boy who carries golf clubs.
  • Every car is equipped with a corroborator.

Type 2. Misspelling words

The second type of Howler happens when someone misspells the word:

  • The barons made King John sing Magna Charta.
  • Curiously enough, Don Bradman did not seem comfortable for the first few minuets.
  • I unrolled in the Army.

Type 3. Mishearing words

In the third type of Howler, the Howler’s perpetrator has misheard the relevant word:

  • There are two autumns in the molecule.
  • Barbarians are things put in bicycle wheels to make them run smoothly.
  • They ran races, jumped, and hurled the biscuits in the Olympic games.

Type 4. Confusing ideas

The fourth kind of Howler happens when someone confuses not words but ideas:

  • The wind is that which the dust blows about the street.
  • Eclipses are of 3 kinds: an annual eclipse comes once a year, a partial eclipse goes on the part of the time only, but a total eclipse lasts forever.
  • In Holland, people make use of water power to drive their windmills.

Where

Type 5. Unperceived inconsistency

This fifth type of Howler resembles the kind of blunder known as “bulls”. It is a statement that contradicts itself amusingly and unconsciously or involves an inconsistency unperceived by the speaker or writer. It is like the Irishman’s rope that had only one end because the other end had been cut off:

  • A baby is the most useful mammal because it will help its family when it grows up.
  • Syncopation is the emphasis on a note which is not in the piece.
  • A toadstool is a thing that looks like a mushroom; then, if you eat it, you die, and you know it is not a mushroom.

Questions

Type 6. Understatement

Sometimes, a Howler’s humour comes from an understatement or from what is left unsaid. Examples of this sixth, more subtle, kind of Howler are:

  • A railway station is a place where we wait for trains.
  • Sir Winston Churchill invented the V-sign to encourage people. It is different today.
  • Picasso is a modern painter who has to tell people what he means. In the old days, they put it in the picture.

Type 7. Cuteness

This seventh kind of Howler is not a blunder at all. Instead, it is an amusing way of expressing matters:

  • A sob is when a feller doesn’t mean to cry, and it bursts out all by itself.
  • A fan is a thing that brushes the warmth off.
  • Dust is mud with the juice squeezed out.

Observations

You can see from this list that the causes of Howlers vary. Sometimes, a Howler is due to poor spelling, sometimes to poor hearing, and sometimes for other reasons. The source of the humour in Howlers also varies. Sometimes, you might be laughing at the perpetrator of the Howler. At other times, the stimulus for laughter comes from something else (a topic to be explored more fully in a separate article). The funniest Howlers happen when the misunderstanding, understatement, or other cause, conveys some truth.

The humour in a Howler depends on the reader or listener possessing relevant knowledge. For example, to understand the humour in the Winston Churchill “v-sign” quote, you need to picture the gesture that the maker of the Howler had in mind. Winston Churchill’s v-sign started as two fingers pointing skyward with palms facing in. When he discovered the gesture was offensive to the working class, Churchill changed the gesture to palms facing out. Above all, the humour in a Howler must be unconscious. The humour cannot be deliberate or concocted.

Howlers can be on many different topics, enough for compilers to dedicate whole books of Howlers on discrete subjects, such as religion and geology.