When Bad Things Happen to Good Words
I’m an avid collector of language peculiarities. It’s a wordy pursuit, and comes from my dad reading Dr. Seuss to me when I was a sprout. Welcome to my little Museum of Linguistic Errata, featuring a cornucopia of various slips of the tongue, or lapsus lingua. I could have built an entire wing for George W. Bush, who tortured more than detainees, with “misunderestimated” and “Terriers embarrass everywhere,” but I’m not going to make fun of a special needs child. I am thinking of a Sarah Palin exhibit, though. You may remember her conflating the words refute and repudiate into “refudiate.”
With over a million words in the English language — we hit that mark in 2009 — every time we open our mouths we’re walking into a veritable minefield of potential blunders and mishaps. It’s a bit like driving; if you don’t have your brain engaged, accidents can happen. Unlike driving, usually no one gets hurt, other than a bruised ego. Witness the poor CBS reporter this last April, after the final game of the NCAA men’s basketball championships, as she excitedly announced: “The U. Conn Huskies are the 2014 NAACP Champions!” We’re only human, and it’s easy to confuse words that sound alike but mean different things, like penal and penile, intimate and infinite, irascible and erasable, salivation and salvation, or condescension and condensation. At least in the case of circumscribe and circumcise, both go around something.
A Spoonerism is transposing the beginning letter or consonant of two words, like bass ackwards, one I use a lot. A malapropism is using the wrong word rather than the one intended. No matter what you hear, a Japanese businessman who brings disgrace upon his company is not traditionally obligated to commit sudoku. Then there are simple mispronunciations, like the one that irks me — “nuke-you-ler.” It’s called metathesis (meh-TATH-eh-sis), when you transpose letters in a word. People use aks for ask, or say asteriks. They can even add a letter that isn’t there, as in stastistics. I learned a great word while writing this. If a person stubbornly sticks to a mispronunciation after they’ve been corrected, they will have committed a mumpsimus. There are words that are spelled the same but mean different things and are pronounced differently, called heteronyms. For the perfect example we return to George W. Bush, who in a college paper proved that he almost knew how to use a thesaurus: “Lacerations ran down her cheeks.”
When a participle, or verbal form, isn’t immediately followed by the noun it modifies, it’s called a dangling participle or misplaced modifier, like this one I saw on Fox (alleged) News. The chiron, that news crawler at the bottom of the screen, read: “Crew retrieves crane after falling into building.” Who fell into the building, the crew or the crane?
Then there’s just plain ignorance. Homophones are two words that sound the same but mean different things, like bare and bear, or rows and rose. They are not what gay people use to call each other, as the Utah school superintendent must have thought when he fired a teacher for writing a blogpost about them. In 1999, a Washington, D.C. city official was pressured to resign after he described the meager distribution of a city fund as niggardly.
Writing the language has its own speed bumps. If you’re typing “therapist” and don’t notice that you accidentally hit the space bar, you could end up with “the rapist.” I saved an ad for a seminar that appeared in my local paper: “Are you interested in pubic charter schools?” Uh, no thanks. I don’t know if dropping the teaching of cursive in the schools has anything to do with all this, but scientists tell us the brain processes language differently when you write than when you print. Although I suspect school officials decided to get rid of cursive because the kids were already swearing too much.
We’ve covered speech and writing, but what is language without ears to hear? Okay, that was a trick question; it’s called a soliloquy, as in the famous one from Hamlet. But there’s just as much room for error in what we hear. The early “Saturday Night Live” had a recurring character, Emily Latella, who would come on the Weekend Update with an editorial like “Why are people so upset by violins on television?” Then Chevy Chase would correct her: “That’s violence, Emily, not violins.” And she’d say, “Oh. Never mind.” I’ve had this problem since I can remember. It’s a doggie dog world? I don’t get it. By the way, they’re UN peacekeepers, not beekeepers. I don’t hear Rhodes Scholar, I hear roads collar. One day a radio ad was asking if I’d been having difficulty with a reptile dysfunction. The same station has a motto “Seattle’s news, Seattle’s talk,” but I hear Seattle snooze, Seattle stalk (or stock — hey, it’s another homophone! Hello? Hello?) I quickly figured out that another radio ad was talking about smallpox, but this is what I heard: “Small talk is one of the deadliest diseases in human history.” Nonetheless, I have to agree. Oh, and it’s the Irish Foreign Minister, not Porn Minister, and it’s Wake Forest, not wait for it. And the nice lady in that PSA isn’t telling us that during hot weather we should put out ebola water for our pets. I imagine a quality hearing aid would clarify many of these things, but look at all the fun I’d be missing. I still can’t figure out what the computer term dragon drop means.
I did some digging, and there is a word for this malady, although it usually applies to hearing music lyrics incorrectly: Mondegreen. It comes from an old English song, “They slew the Earl of Moray, and laid him on the green.” Someone wrote Lady Mondegreen. The most famously misheard lyric is from the Mannfred Mann song “Blinded by the Light.” I used to think the line was “wrapped up like a douche and under rollin’ in the light,” which makes no sense. The line is “Revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night.” So now you know. I found a great website called kissthisguy.com, started by someone who was listening to Jimi Hendrix sing “Scuse me while I kiss the sky.” There you’ll learn that Elton John is not singing “Hold me closer, Tony Danza,” and Creedence Clearwater Revival is not singing “There’s a bathroom on the right.” Now I love rock music, and have since I first heard it, but it can be difficult making out the words with all that racket going on. Fortunately we have the internet.
Back to my own Mondegreens, I’ve discovered that what I mistakenly hear is often closer to the truth than what was actually said. “Cell phone” always sounded like “self” phone to me, and that was years before the first selfie. I have named this ability Prefrontal Freudian Slippage. With so many Americans in debt, and with banksters betting the farm on imaginary futures, the word “creditor” is used often, but I hear “predator,” and I think it’s much more accurate. Yet another radio ad announces a seminar on flipping houses, with the voice of the some guy enthusiastically saying how he’s looking for a small group of motivated individuals to join his real estate scheme. He’s saying “team”, but it’s a scheme, especially when they promise that you can do all this using other people’s money.
So the moral is to be careful out on the Rhodes, because verbal potholes lurk everywhere. I know you don’t need a license to speak, you don’t need language insurance to use it, and you don’t even have to buckle up. But when you’re out there, watch what you say (besides, the NSA is listening). Oh, and one more thing: please think responsibly.
P.S. — Remember — when baking cookies, be sure to include the children.