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Speech impediment

It’s the juxtaposition of ‘u’ on ‘u’ that did for Jim. According to scientific study, a sequence of words with the same vowels in the same place can trip us up, as poor Jim Naughtie discovered on Monday morning.

11 December 2010

12:00 AM

11 December 2010

12:00 AM

It’s the juxtaposition of ‘u’ on ‘u’ that did for Jim. According to scientific study, a sequence of words with the same vowels in the same place can trip us up, as poor Jim Naughtie discovered on Monday morning.

It’s the juxtaposition of ‘u’ on ‘u’ that did for Jim. According to scientific study, a sequence of words with the same vowels in the same place can trip us up, as poor Jim Naughtie discovered on Monday morning. If you missed the classic radio moment, he was trying to announce Jeremy Hunt, the culture minister, just before the eight o’clock news but didn’t quite get his name right, muddling up those initial letters. He then had to carry on talking, giving us the headlines, through his embarrassed giggles (I kept wondering why his colleague Evan didn’t help him out by taking over, but he was probably just as paralysed by laughter as Jim).

Naughtie’s faux pas was very hear to clear, and some poor souls with no sense of humour, and even less pity, immediately sent off grumpy emails of complaint about such behaviour at breakfast time on Radio 4, as if such a linguistic lapse had never happened to them. I wish. My grandfather, from whom I’ve inherited the weakness, used to do it from the pulpit, though fortunately for him he never made quite as drastic a slip-up as Jim’s. It’s no coincidence that the spoonerism is named after a vicar, William Archibald Spooner, since these verbal tics usually happen when you’re in a hyped-up, open-to-embarrassment situation. (Spooner was a shy, nervous man, who for reasons unknown chose to devote his life to a profession that demands extrovert public speaking.)


Let’s hope for Jim’s sake that Hunt is soon moved to another Cabinet post, or never again appears on Today. Can you imagine how he will feel if he knows Hunt has been invited on to the programme and there’s no one else to introduce him?

I hope Naughtie took comfort from Frank Cottrell Boyce’s lecture on Radio 3 on Thursday night. Cottrell Boyce bears the grandiose title Thinker-in-Residence at this year’s Free Thinking festival from the Sage in Gateshead organised by the BBC. He chose to talk on The Joys of Failure for his keynote lecture, a great subject for this time of year when nothing seems possible and everything appears doomed to dank, grey nothingness. By its end I actually felt quite cheerful, knowing all too well that I’ve only ever learnt anything crucial after first making a hugely embarrassing or costly mistake.

Cottrell Boyce’s thesis is that we’ve become allergic to the idea of failure, morbidly dreading it. We try to protect our children from it by constantly telling them they’re wonderful and that what they’ve done is brilliant, even when this is very far from the truth. It’s not just patronising, he says, but poisonous, too, because it takes away the desire to get better, to learn what really matters. He goes into schools (as a children’s writer) to read from his books and believes that this constant praise, often for behaviour and achievements that are actually quite average, diminishes expectation and therefore the possibility of real success. The competitive wars of the league tables, he argues, are killing off aspiration.

It is a bit odd listening to a writer talking about the virtues of doing badly, making a mistake, coming second, when he is so obviously a success — with the scripts for such films as Hilary and Jackie, 24-Hour Party People and Millions to his credit. What can he possibly know about failure? But Cottrell Boyce won me round by telling stories against himself and by explaining that it took him ten years to finish one script and get it accepted. It’s the attempt, the fact of trying, that’s the great adventure, he reminds us, rather than those rare, very rare moments of inspiration.

He really did set me thinking — as did the Chief Rabbi and his Thought for the Day last Thursday, when he spoke about Hanukkah, explaining the Jewish festival of lights. He recalled how 20 years ago he was with the former Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, at the time of the festival and they both lit candles. Gorbachev asked, through the translator, ‘What’s the significance of this ritual lighting of candles?’ The Chief Rabbi explained that it’s in memory of the occasion when the right to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem, and light the Menorah (the Hanukiah), was restored to the Jews of Israel after centuries of religious oppression.

The Chief Rabbi then reminded Gorbachev how he had made it possible for Jews to practise their faith in Soviet Russia after 70 years of persecution under the Communists. By doing this, he said, the Soviet president had become part of the centuries-long tradition of Hanukkah, of the battle for religious freedom. At these words, he recalled with a gift for the telling detail, he saw Gorbachev blush. ‘He actually blushed.’


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