Chapter VIII. – Blunders from Ignorance, pp.35-42.

[Book of Blunders Contents]

BLUNDERS are always more absurd when accompanied by an affectation of superior knowledge, or when made in matters with which every one is expected to be familiar. 

A Canadian paper stated not long since that the Mayor of Brantfort, while reading to the Council a motion written out by one of his colleagues, broke out into an uncontrollable guffaw when he found




The Councillor demanded an explanation. The Mayor explained that the word should be spelt 


A story is told of two American politicians – one from Kansas, the other from Louisiana – meeting on a Mississippi steamer, who got into a dispute as to which had got the best religious education. The Louisiana man brought the matter to a test by betting ten dollars that the other could not repeat the Lord’s Prayer. 


said the Kansas man; and after a squirt to afford a moment’s reflection, he began in a slow and steady voice – 

“Now I lay me down to sleep, 

I pray the ———” 

   “Yes, yes; stop, I see you have it,” 

said the other, 

   “you needn’t go on,” 

– and handed over the stakes. 

A somewhat similar story is told of a Glasgow merchant, whom we shall call Mr L., and who once occupied a prominent position in the Town Council. 

He had gone one Sabbath to hear a candidate in one of the city churches, of which the Town Council holds the presentation. Next day he was speaking with high commendation of the sermon, when some one happened to ask, 

   “What was the text?” 

Mr L., whose knowledge of Scripture was rather hazy, and who had probably been dozing the greater part of the time, was taken a little aback. 

   “The text?” 

he said, 

   “the text. What was it again? It began with ‘Now -’ ‘now is -’ ‘now is the -’ ay, that’s it! ‘now’s the day and now’s the hour.’ ” 

Curious stories are told of the blunders made by Oxford undergraduates in the Scripture examination, which, as a matter of form, they have to pass before taking their degree. 

It is told of one that when asked who was the first King of Israel, he was so fortunate as to stumble upon the name of “Saul.” He saw that he had hit the mark, and, wishing to show the examiners how intimate his knowledge of the Scriptures was, he added confidentially, 

   “Saul – also called Paul.” 

Another was called upon to mention 

   “the two instances recorded in Scripture of the lower animals speaking.” 

The undergraduate thought for a moment and replied – 

   “Balaam’s ass.” 

   “That is one. What is the other?” 

Under graduate paused in earnest thought. At last a gleam of recollection lit up his face as he replied – 

   “The whale! The whale said unto Jonah, ‘Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.’ ” 

Mr Don, author of a book on University Life at Cambridge, is responsible for the following cases:- One candidate for a degree stated the substance of Paul’s sermon at Athens to be, crying out for the space of two hours, 

   “Great is Diana of the Ephesians.” 

Another was asked to give the parable of the good Samaritan. He did so with tolerable accuracy till he came to the place where the Samaritan says to the inn-keeper, 

   “When I come again I will repay thee.” 

Here the unlucky examinee added, 

   “This he said, knowing that he should see his face no more.” 

Another gentleman, whose acquaintance with Scripture seems to have been of an even more remarkable kind, when called upon to trace the connection between the Old and the New Testament, referred to the circumstance that Peter, with his sword, cut off the ear of the prophet Malachi. 

The case, however, which showed the rarest combination of good memory with an inferior sense of traditional order was that of an examinee who was called upon to give an account of the death of Jezebel. He evidently felt sure of his ground, for he prefaced his account by a remark about the importance of adhering as closely as possible to Scripture language. He then proceeded as follows:- 

   “And as he passed through the gate of the city, there looked out upon him two persons appointed for the purpose. And he said unto them, ‘Throw her down.’ So they threw her down. And he said, ‘Do it a second time.’ And they did it a second time. And he said, ‘Do it a third time.’ And they did it a third time; and they did it unto seven times; yea unto seventy times seven. Last of all the woman died also. And they took up of the fragments that were left seven baskets full.” 

Oxford undergraduates seem not to be worse than other folk. A strange collection of blunders might be made from the examination papers of almost any school or college. A Liverpool schoolmaster selects the following from amongst the answers returned in the written exercises:- 

   “What are cromlechs?” 

   “Cromlechs are fibrous substances found in Scotland, out of which a sort of incombustible cloth is manufactured.” 

   “What are the trade winds?” 

   “The trade winds are so called because they are the winds that trade ships go by. They blow in the Arctic Ocean.” 

   “What is ignis fatuus?” 

   “Ignis fatuus is an imperceptible light, which is sometimes seen in marshes and bogs.” 

   “Tell what you know about the Round Towers in Ireland.” 

   “The round towers are tall towers built in memory of the dead, but for what purpose is not known.” 

In the General Assembly, during a discussion as to the better training of students, Mr Douglas Maclagan said the Assembly would know the necessity there was for more stringency if they could see some of the papers handed in by medical students in the preliminary examination they are required to pass in literature and mathematics. A question, for instance, was put as to the meaning of the word 


One candidate answered that it was  

   “a machine for raising water.” 

Another said it was  

   “something that happened to a man after death.” 

In answer to the requirement, 

   “Give some account of Galileo and Copernicus,” 

one student replied that Galileo was a man who had committed five murders; another, that Galileo and Copernicus were two classical heroes who had fallen together in some battle. A third student said that Copernicus was  

   “a compound of two metals.” 

Absurd mistakes are sometimes made even in the pulpit when the minister runs his comments into collateral sciences with which he is less acquainted than with theology. 

It is told of one good old minister that when he came in the course of exposition to the verse about the voice of the turtle being heard in the land, he, knowing only of one kind of turtle, proceeded to comment on the passage as follows:- 

   “The turtle, my brethren, does not often sing – I have never heard it sing myself – but I have no doubt that when it does sing it sings most melaw-diously.” 

This puts me in mind of a farmer, in a part of the country where “a hind” always means a farm-labourer, confiding to his minister the difficulty he had always felt over the verse where it says that the Lord makes the kinds to calve. 

He said if it hadn’t been in the Bible he wouldn’t have believed it possible; 

   “and even as it is,” 

he said, 

   “I canna understand hoo the thing could be done.” 

A ludicrous story is told of an Edinburgh Bailie whose studies in natural history seem to have been limited. The following case came before him one day:- A man who kept a ferret, having to go into the country, left the cage with the ferret in charge of a neighbour till he should return. The neighbour incautiously opened the cage door, and the ferret escaped. The man was very angry, and brought a claim against him for damages. The following was the decision of the learned Bailie – 

   “Nae doot,” 

he said to the neighbour, 

   “nae doot ye was wrang to open the cage door; but,” 

he added, turning to the man, 

   “ye was wrang too. What for did ye no clip the brute’s wings?” 

It is also told of a certain Glasgow Bailie that when visiting Paris as one of a deputation from Glasgow to Louis Philippe, the King said, when showing the party through his library, where he had many of the English classics, 

   “You will know Milton very well?” 

   “O, bless you, yes; bless you, yes,” 

said the Bailie, cheerfully, delighted that something had been mentioned that he did know, 

   “Yes, your majesty, I know Milton1 very well; we’re just building slaughter-houses there.” 

A blunder is much more pardonable when made about our people or our affairs by foreigners. Some blunders of this kind, however, are comical enough. 

For instance, when the account of Mr Bailie Cochrane’s visits to the prisons of Rome was being extracted with some modification by the Osservatore Romano, as presenting on the whole a report so favourable to the Pontifical Government as to render its circulation advisable among Italian readers through the medium of the Roman Press, Mr Cochrane figured as 

   “Mr Cochrane, M.P., and Deputy to the Chamber of Commons of London.” 

But the Roman writer had evidently not been aware of the exact value of the initials “M.P.,” which he took to mean that Mr Cochrane was in the Church, for in his second column he mentions, 

   “Il Signor Cochrane, Ministre Protestante.” 

Some very absurd mistakes have been made by reason of the difficulty many people have in distinguishing between fact and burlesque. 

When Dr Campbell’s “Hermippus Redicicus” (a curious banter on the hermetic philosophy and the universal medicine) was first published, the grave irony was kept up so well to the close, that it deceived for a time the most learned men of the day. His notion of the art of prolonging life, by inhaling the breath of young women, was eagerly credited. A physician, who himself had composed a treatise on health, was so influenced by it, that he actually took lodgings at a female boarding-school, that he might never be without a constant supply of the breath of young ladies. 

Everybody has heard of Sir Thomas More’s political romance, representing a perfect, but visionary republic, in an island supposed, at the time when the book was published, to have been newly discovered in America. granger says that 

   “as this was the age of discovery, the learned Budœus, and others, took it for a genuine history; and considered it as highly expedient, that missionaries should be sent to Utopia in order to convert so wise a nation to Christianity.” 

I could adduce from my own experience some amusing cases of the mistake of burlesque for reality. In 1866, when Dr Norman Macleod’s assault on the Decalogue was before the Glasgow Presbytery, I wrote a quiz on the proceedings, representing the case as if it had been one of action for divorce, the parties being the Church (Ecclesia Scota) and the Doctor. This was taken by a Hindoo paper as a bonâ fide trial, and was quoted and solemnly commented upon in the leading columns, as an illustration of the low state of morality in Scotland. On the previous year, when the kindred quiz on the trial of Dr Macleod for the murder of Mr Moses Law was published, the milkman in our neighbourhood brought word to our servant, that night, that he had just seen in the papers that Dr Macleod had killed a man in his church. It was only the year before that Dr Pritchard had been executed on Glasgow Green,* and the man, in allusion to this, added ominously,  

   “I wad’na wonder if Dr Macleod come to the Green next.” 

More recently, when an outcry was being made about the change going on in Presbyterian Church architecture and services, as if it indicated the stealthy invasion of Episcopacy and Romanism, I wrote a skit entitled “Scottish Apostacy,” in which, among other jocularities, reference was made to the introduction of a harmonium into a Presbyterian Church in Pollokshaws, and the writer was made to exclaim, 

   “Who knows to what extent this fatal step may have been responsible for the perversion of Dr Newman and the Marquis of Bute?” 

Will it be credited that next day a long and carefully written letter, evidently the production of an educated man, came to the Editor of the Herald, (in which the skit had appeared), gravely combating the writer’s arguments, and saying, amongst other things, that it was preposterous to attribute the perversion of Newman and the Marquis of Bute to the harmonium at Pollokshaws, as Newman had apostatized years before the harmonium was even spoken of, and the Marquis of Bute had never been within the Pollokshaws Church door! 

Evidently there are some heads on which Sydney Smith’s surgical operation is still needed.

1  Milton is a little place in the neighbourhood of Glasgow. 
*  Screenshot_2020-07-09 Montrose Standard and Angus and Meai{ns Register, August 4, 1865 Montrose Standard Friday 04 August 1[...](1)

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