cover image The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Make Surprising Sense

The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Make Surprising Sense

Daniel Menaker, illus. by Roz Chast. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $20 (256p) ISBN 978-0-544-80063-2

In this slender volume, Menaker (My Mistake), a former editor at the New Yorker and Random House, delivers a wry look at a particular type of poor usage that he deems “the African svelte.” The African svelte is “the verbal equivalent of trying to put a shoe on the wrong foot,” because it somehow fits anyway, Menaker explains, referring to unintentionally misused words that produce comprehensive sentences. Menaker introduces the concept with the story of its namesake: he came across the sentence “the zebra were grazing on the African svelte” while reading through the fiction slush pile at the New Yorker magazine and was so amused that he started keeping a working list of similar slippages. He also muses on the Internet’s effect on language, and other types of word gaffes including spoonerisms, malapropisms, eggcorns, etc. The bulk of the book consists of numbered examples of sveltes along with short explanations of their provenance. Illustrator Chast (Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?) chimes in to illustrate entries intermittently throughout the book (her sketch for “the terrorist was wearing a baklava” being particularly funny). The result is an amusing romp through the English language that will please language snobs and open-minded linguists. B&w illus. [em](Oct.) [/em]