Book review: The African Svelte by Daniel Menaker

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Cover image The African Svelte by Daniel Menaker

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There is a new book in town: “The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings that Make Surprising Sense” by Daniel Menaker.

A seasoned author and editor himself, Menaker has spent many years collecting spelling errors that—while remaining errors—follow their own fascinating logic. The people who make these types of errors are usually those who may have heard a certain turn of phrase spoken out loud but have rarely seen it in writing. So, when they do commit that phrase to paper, it has been spiced up with their very special interpretation. As Billy Collins says in the foreword, “We are dealing with errors in translation not from one language to another, but from the ear to the eye.”

What to expect from the “The African Svelte”

Menaker calls this kind of error a “svelte.” The term is inspired by the original “svelte,” the one that caused him to start collecting “sveltes” in the first place: “The zebras were grazing on the African svelte.” What struck him about the both semantically and etymologically relatable confusion between “veldt” and “svelte” is something that he also noticed in other “sveltes”: They have “that same kind of rightness about them that in many case equaled and in some cases superseded their wrongness.” A remarkable view on mistakes that translators and proofreaders sometimes lose in the daily grind.

This book is full of unexpected little nuggets that will make you smile in surprise—maybe even in wry recognition of how that error could have happened to you. Every one of the 101 “sveltes “in the book is covered on 1 or 2 short pages. That makes it ideal for dipping into.

For a little taster, can you guess the original phrases behind these “sveltes”?

  • from the gecko
  • feta com plea
  • ultraviolent radiation (possibly my favorite)

What NOT to expect

This book is not a sneering collection of mistakes made by stupid illiterates. Move on, anyone who wants to join the chortling crowds poking fun at anyone who ever forgot to proofread a social media post. Instead, Menaker offers brief musings on the origins of each original phrase and some commentary on what makes the “svelte” so ingenious. How refreshing to have a book that acknowledges how creative people are with language! No grammar police, no jeering, no bemoaning the state of English today.

How many “sveltes” can you catch?

What I like about this book is that it opens up a new angle on language that gives me pause for thought. In reality, written language is a vehicle for communicating thoughts. People make spelling choices for a reason. They are putting the information available to them to the best use and getting their message across.

Errors in written language reveal fascinating insights about linguistic strategies and techniques. Isn’t it amazing that we still understand exactly what people were aiming for even if their spelling is unconventional?

I had barely put down the book when I found my own first real-life “svelte” in a Facebook comment about a concert: “We had first-roll seats.” Makes sense it a weird way, doesn’t it? Have you seen any “sveltes” lately?

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