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Jack Smith

'Pullet Surprise': Years later, student's coincidence is still, uh, malapropriate

February 18, 1985|JACK SMITH

I have been troubled by an Associated Press story out of Orange Park, Fla., reporting what seems to me an incredible coincidence.

I wasn't going to take note of it here, but several clippings of it have been sent to me, from various newspapers, and I feel obliged to comment.

The story said that Jim Mattson, an English teacher at Orange Park High School, had been collecting his students' malapropisms over a period of four years--both at Orange Park and during his previous assignment in Exeter, N.H., and it gave some examples.

One of his students had written that floods could be prevented by putting dames in the river; another noted that Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock, and a third wrote that a horse divided against itself cannot stand.

We are all familiar with the malapropism--named for Mrs. Malaprop, who was so good at them in Sheridan's play, "The Rivals"; and most of us have made our share.

Some other gems from Mattson's collection:

"The difference between a king and a president is that a king is the son of his father, but a president isn't."

"A virgin forest is a place where the hand of man has never set foot."

"I don't think they really know what they've written," Mattson was quoted as saying. He added that the beauty of the English language is that "it opens itself up for those kinds of connotations."

What troubled me, though, was a student's malapropism that Mattson gave as one of his favorites:

"In 1957, Eugene O'Neill won the Pullet Surprise."

"I literally fell out of my chair laughing," he said. "I was laughing so hard I was crying. I showed it to my wife and tears came down her cheeks."

Alas, a dedicated schoolteacher named Amsel Greene, years before, and way out in Helena, Wyo., had had pretty much the same reaction when the same sentence turned up in one of her students' papers:

"In 1957, Eugene O'Neill won a Pullet Surprise" (the only difference being an a instead of a the).

Like Mattson, Miss Greene was fascinated by these strangely logical errors, and had been collecting them with the idea that someday she would publish them in a book. But what to call it?

"Here was the term," Amsel Greene wrote in her preface, "for which I had been groping. I had jotted down hundreds of classroom misinterpretations for which I had found no name. The terms boners, bloopers and booboos imply stupidity or inadvertence, whereas student errors are often marvels of ingenuity and logic. But Pullet Surprises sparked a Eureka response. Its rightness had the impact of revelation!"

Miss Greene indeed got her book published, but it was only in paperback, and probably at her own expense, and it was not until the end of her long career.

She retired after having taught English in Helena for 30 years, and came to live with her sister in Laguna Hills. She brought with her a garage full of unsold copies of her book--"Pullet Surprises."

They remained mostly unsold until Ralph Story did a show on Miss Greene and her lifework, and later I wrote a column or two, including some of her Pullet Surprises.

Did you know, for example, that soldiers of high rank wear opulents on their shoulders, and that space flying may be affected by comic rays; about a man who drove a red Chivalry, and a woman who wore a single pedant on a gold chain; that Moses went up Mt. Cyanide to get the Ten Commandments; about a vassal that held three barrels of beer, and an affluent young suitor who gave his fiance a choice between a ruby and an atheist?

She had hundreds. She made a noble attempt to analyze and categorize the various types; but this was not entirely successful. They were too elusive.

Then Miss Greene died, and her sister, and there was not much more interest in the piles of books in her garage.

Back in 1982 I decided to put together a book of curiosities about the English language, and, as Miss Greene had, I was looking about for a title. I had a hard time thinking of anything fresh. So many clever books on language were being published, and all the apt phrases were being used.

Finally the publisher gave it a name so dull, so meaningless, that I phoned New York and told them I couldn't live with it, and if they named the book that I would never mention it. They gave me 24 hours to come up with a new one, and I came up with "How to Win a Pullet Surprise." Meaningless, perhaps, but not dull.

Naturally, I first found out who had the copyright on Miss Greene's book, and got written permission to use her phrase in my title, though I wouldn't really have had to do that. But I thought I owed her that much, anyway.

I also had a chapter called "Pullet Surprises: It's Time for Youth in Asia," which told Amsel Greene's story, and quoted liberally from her book.

It is not impossible, of course, that another student, years later, and thousands of miles away, might have written exactly that same sentence--"In 1957, Eugene O'Neill won a Pullet Surprise."

I certainly cannot accuse Mattson of having taken it from Amsel Greene's book, or from mine. Coincidences do happen, and it's true that in 1957 Eugene O'Neill won a Pulitzer Prize.

If nothing else, it has given me a chance to salute a dedicated teacher--Amsel Greene.

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