Words at Play

My Bad: 7 Words for When Things Go Wrong

Not that you ever make a mistake


Jackson ended up taking the brunt of the blowback, despite Timberlake obviously deserving at least half of the blame. It was famously dubbed a "wardrobe malfunction" and, apparently, the stunt was supposed to reveal a red lace bra, but things went haywire.
— Tim Marcin, Newsweek, 27 Sept. 2017

Haywire has a literal meaning: the wire used in baling hay, often used to facilitate makeshift repairs. Haywire has a reputation for being difficult to manage, leading to such expressions such as haywire outfit, originally referring to a poorly equipped group of loggers and then anything that was flimsy or patched together, and gradually for attempts gone wrong.

We can thank 20th-century writers such as John O'Hara and William Faulkner for stretching haywire to mean "crazy":

"Why?" the doctor said. "You put up as pretty a scrap against forty or fifty men as I ever saw. You lasted a good two seconds. Now you can eat something. Or do you think that will send you haywire again?"
— William Faulkner, The Wild Palms, 1939


The fumble marked the 13th time this season UW’s defense had taken the field after a turnover (six interceptions, six fumbles and one blocked punt). Including Maryland’s field goal, opponents have scored just five times (three field goals, two touchdowns) off those miscues.
— Jeff Potrykus, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 21 Oct. 2017

Miscue turns up in a lot of sportswriting, from golf to football, as a kind way of referring to a mistake made by a player. That's appropriate, since the word originated with another sport: pool. The cue in miscue indeed refers to the cue stick; a miscue was originally a faulty stroke in which the cue stick does not strike the cue ball cleanly.

Don't lower the butt of the cue to bring its tip into this position. This throws the cue off level and increases the danger of a miscue.
— Willie Mosconi, Winning Pocket Billiards, 1965


In the old method, the stabilizers were pressed to the rock, one on each side of the withdrawn bit; the bit was then pushed forward via a "drill feed mechanism." But the feed mechanism went wonky in December 2016, and Curiosity hasn't drilled a rock since.
— Mike Wall, Space.com, 24 Oct. 2017

The funny-sounding adjective wonky has two separate entries in the dictionary. The first of these relates to the noun wonk, meaning one preoccupied with the arcane details or procedures within a field (such as a wonky statistician).

The word's use to describe things that don't hold together as well as they should—such as a wonky door hinge, or trying to walk on a wonky ankle—originated as a British usage and is believed to be an alteration of a dialectical noun, wankle. It's now frequently seen in the construction go wonky, meaning "to stop working properly."


Given the amount of harassment that occurs on Twitter, a lot of users may be reluctant to let Joe Public contact them. On the other hand, if you made a boner in a tweet or link, someone could point it out in a direct message and save you a public shaming.
— Steve Dent, Engadget, 20 Apr. 2015

A boner is one who bones—you know, puts stays into garments. But that sense of boner has nothing to do with its meaning of a clumsy or stupid mistake. Garment workers are by no means stupid or clumsy. The "mistake" sense arose in the early 20th century, around the same time as bonehead to mean a stupid person.


Could I spend the rest of my life with someone who approached things so fundamentally different from me? I needed to find out, and with our relationship on the fritz just days before taking off, the itinerary rested on things working out between us.
— Molly Steele, Harper's Bazaar, 13 Oct. 2017

Just as humans mess up, so do our machines. The phrase on the fritz dates to the beginning of the 20th century--a time, perhaps, when electric appliances were becoming more common (and consequently break down) in American homes.

However, nobody knows the exact origin of the term. Some have been tempted to connect the phrase to The Katzenjammer Kids, a comic strip featuring a prankish character named Fritz, but no evidence supports the theory. Alternately, some might hear in fritz the sound of an electrical connection short-circuiting. Now anything from relationships to careers can go on the fritz.


Johnson is known for his gaffes abroad, and some are awkward but forgivable – like the time he responded to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's crackdown on free speech by writing a rude poem about him and a goat.
— Julia Rampen, New Statesman, 4 Oct. 2017

While gaffe can apply to a physical blunder (as in "the shortstop's gaffe on a routine grounder"), it's more likely to refer to an error of social or diplomatic tact, such as when you forget to thank your host after a party.

The word is believed to derive from the French word for gaff, referring to a hook (such for hanging freshly caught fish). While gaff has other meanings, including "a hoax or gimmick," the origin of that sense is not known.


Sophie Rhys-Jones — who got hitched to Prince Edward in 1999 — had a p.r. company before they met. But that business went kaput in 2015 after she made indiscreet comments about the in-laws, proving that business and royalty don’t mix.
— Jennifer Wright, The New York Post, 30 Sept. 2017

Kaput originated with a French card game called piquet where winning all twelve tricks in a hand is called faire capot ("to make capot"), but to lose them all is known as être capot ("to be capot"). The word was respelled with a k when it passed through German, and then English speakers borrowed the word to describe things that were broken, useless, or ruined.

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