howler

“How,” Maury’s owlish uncle Evelyn harrumphed, “could they have let such a howler pass?” He swatted his newspaper onto the table in front of him and jabbed a nicotine-stained fingertip at the offending line. “I shall have to write a letter.”

Maury and I leaned towards the paper from our respective sides. “Monkey business?” Maury said.

“Mournfully bad,” Evelyn said, drawing forth his fountain pen and a small coil-bound notebook.

“Cart before horse or leg before wicket?” I said. Evelyn merely turned his head towards me for a moment, lowered his lunettes so he could peer at me significantly over them, and turned back to his scrawling in bilious green ink.

Since it takes Evelyn a few minutes to write one of his wonted screeds, I have time to explain the comments above. A howler is a thing that howls, of course, but it is seldom applied to wolves. Rather, it is often a short form for howler monkey, a kind of monkey that – well, you can guess what kind of noise it makes. Howler is also a now-rare term applied to professional mourners at funerals (one does see them so seldom today). And it also refers to an egregious error. That can be an error on the sporting field, especially in British parlance, or it can be an error of fact, logic, or grammar.

Is an error so named because it makes you howl with angst or laughter? It seems that it is in fact the error itself that exclaims: as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, it is “Something ‘crying’, ‘clamant’, or excessive; spec. a glaring blunder, esp. in an examination, etc.” Glaring is a visual metaphor; its auditory equivalent is howling. We don’t refer to things as glarers, however, perhaps in part because that’s a word that requires extra effort to say. But I do think that people like howler because of the how and ow that it contains – and perhaps the suggestion of who, as in “Who is responsible for this?”

Now, then. Maury’s uncle Evelyn (and we can understand how a man with a name that in the past century has gradually become a “woman’s” name might be sensitive to gaffes) finished writing his latest lance at the boils of journalism. He held up the notebook – I could see the numerous cross-outs and interlinear additions – and commenced reading aloud.

“Sirs: Your author has committed one of the most egregious schoolboy howlers in his choice of a rhetorical connective: he begins a sentence with ‘Now, then,’ a patent contradiction in terms. Is it now, or is it then? As the great Roman orator Cato – unlikely known to your woefully undereducated scribblers – was wont to say…”

Somewhere in the middle of his baterful oration I was seized by a coughing fit and had to leave the room to treat it with ethanol in solution taken orally. It occurs to me that I have failed to mention the use of howler commonly seen among dyspeptic writers of letters to the editor: to refer to something that few other than the author would even consider an error, but that the author wishes to present as about as bad as calling the pope a Muslim. In these uses, howler means “Ha! You have touched on a fine point that I have learned or figured out and that I am confident sets me above you ignorant fools, and now I get to run it up the flagpole! Howl in despair and bow before me, ye wretches! Et cetera.”

I remained in the other room for some time, coughing occasionally as needed, until the sound of the re-lifting of the newspaper signaled a return to quietude… at least until the next owlish hoot and holler.

5 responses to “howler

  1. “Is it now, or is it then?” reminds me of “Gospel Truth,” a skit by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, in which Matthew, doing “reportage” for the Bethlehem Star, interviews Arthur Shepherd about what happened when “me and the lads were abiding in the fields.” Moore, as Matthew, asks Shepherd, played by Cook, to “go back in time.” “I’ll do it now, if you want.” “I want you to tell me now how it was back then.” “Now,” Cook ponders, “how it was then…Fine.”

    “Now, then,” Moore resumes.

    A version of the skit, without the time travel dialogue, is at

  2. And let us not forget the howler in the boudoir.

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