Monday, November 8, 2010

The Perils of Mishearing.

Let me start out by saying, I am very deaf. Not clinically, not diagnosably—but the truth is, probably as a result of the Devil's Rock Music, I often have a difficult time understanding what people are saying—that is, unless they speak at a reasonable volume & enunciate like an overzealous middle-school drama teacher (To siT in SoleMN SI-LENSSS, etc.). This is why I prefer text messages or Skype to telephone calls, face-to-face conversation above all—& why, even then, I've had to develop a system for educated aural guessing, so that I don't, as a friend once jibed, "have more stilted conversations than [his] 96-year-old grandmother."

The system goes thusly: pick out the vowel sounds, analyze their order, tack on any consonants you were able to glean (though those are often unreliable), &, most importantly, apply context. Context is paramount, is key, the name of the game, on & on—because, for example, if someone is telling you a story, & they say a word that sounds roughly like "ooo-ays," you might infer that, were this a travel story, they meant "suitcase"; a shoe-shopping story, "bootlace"; a proposal-gone-bad story, "bouquets"; a celebrity gossip session, "new face." As long as you stay alert, it's essentially foolproof.

Unfortunately, there are some cases in which even this elastic system fails, the most frustrating being in music. Song lyrics—complicated as they are by pitch (which is why I will never tackle Mandarin) & poem-like brevity—are often impossible to infer from context. For example, why, oh why, oh why again, would a song called "I'm Looking Through You" come to the end of its chorus with a line like "& you're nowhere"? Doesn't that negate the song's whole premise? Doesn't it make so much more sense for the line to be "I'm looking through you: your underwear"? Because then it's a song about awesome x-ray vision goggles, not mixed relationship metaphors. Right?

Consider the fictional case of Ramona (of Beezus & Ramona fame), who, after being subjected to our embarrassingly constructed national anthem (really, America: it's two not-quite-rhetorical questions), comes away with the understanding that it begins "Oh, say, can you see by the donzerly light," which she logically interprets as "light from a lamp." She then proceeds to show off her new vocabulary by loudly asking her sister to turn on the donzer—&, of course, humiliation ensues. Or, if you like, another true-life version: as a disciple to Britney Spears's nasal throat-hack in younger years, I would proudly sing along to the first line of the second verse of "Lucky": "Lost in a nevitch in a dream..." I was convinced that a nevitch must be a kind of crevice, a crawl-space in which Britney could dream-hide from her newfound fame—as opposed to, you know, "an image." Similar mishearings of mine include: "Now, it's nothing but a mile 'way" (vs. "[a-]my[-uh] way"), "6'15" in my stilettos" (vs. "since fifteen"), "the pianic [as in, piano-related] spike of my life" (vs. "the BMX bike"), on & on.

Another problem with my system (as exemplified by the above examples from my past) is its self-selecting age requirement: in order to pick up patterns in speech or contextual concepts, you need to have been around long enough to recognize norms. Because we learn speech by hearing speech, it's perilously easy to misunderstand, especially at a young age—&, once these warped interpretations imprint themselves on young lobes, they tend to cement, essentially guaranteeing you an embarrassing conversation somewhere down the road.

My (roundabout at best) point is: I have serious empathy for those who unknowingly use some misheard verbiage—& there are certainly a number of English sayings that people seem to flub, again & again, with the sincere unabashedness of misunderstanding. As someone who knows full well what it feels like to get called out—while simultaneously instilled by professor parents with a nails-on-chalkboard deathwish reflex to any & all grammatical mistakes—I think it's in both of our best interests that I clarify some for you now. Here goes:

For all intensive purposes. = For all intents & purposes.

When you classify the purposes as "intensive," you're actually narrowing what you want to say; rather than including all possible intents & all possible purposes, you're now only talking about the really, really intensive purposes, & leaving out intents altogether. When making a generalization, as you're probably doing when this phrase comes into play, my guess is that you want to be all-inclusive (e.g., "For all intents & purposes, cats like lasers"), as opposed to action-movie-climax specific (e.g., "For all intensive purposes, cats like lasers, but when they're not working to negotiate a hostage situation or deactivate a bomb, they don't really have a preference").

Beckoned call. = Beck & call.

Think about it this way: in the misusage, the call is what's being beckoned, which, I'm guessing, is not what you're going for. Meanwhile, in the correct one, this person is at both your beck & your call—two whole words!—so, you exert extra power over them.

Supposably. = Supposedly.

This one's subtle: "supposably" means you're able to suppose it, while "supposedly" designates something already supposed. It's possible to suppose anything, at least as a premise (e.g., "Suppose that trees, when seen from far away, are actually broccoli held up by giants")—but it would be incorrect to call such premises "supposed," as this implies the knowledge has been accepted by someone else first (e.g., "Scientists confirm broccoli-tree hypothesis" = "Supposedly, faraway trees are broccoli—but I don't buy it").

Nip it in the butt. = Nip it in the bud.

When you nip—or, cut—a bud from off its stem, the flower can no longer bloom, thus averting a potentially disastrous gardening situation. However, when you nip—or, bite—someone in the butt, you are either a dog, a mosquito, sexually aggressive, or rabid. This solves nothing.

Case & point. = Case in point.

I screw this one up all the time—case in point, the beginning of my entry on Glee-Rocky, which has since been corrected out of familial shaming. I guess the best way to understand it is this: all good arguments have both a case & a point, but the reason you're singling this one out is because its case is in its point—because it's self-evident. Classifying an argument as "case & point" is nothing special; "case in point" makes it exceptional.

Off the cusp. = Off the cuff.

The cusp is the edge; if you make a remark off it, you might as well not have made the remark at all, as the remark has now fallen off a cliff. However, if you make a remark "off the cuff," it's just tumbled out of your sleeve, like a bunch of flowers at a magic show. So, consider how you want your comment to be received; getting surprise flowers is far more pleasant than jumping off a cliff.

[ NOTE: For those of you who've been watching Logo's The A-List—because, really, why wouldn't you?—you may recognize this as the verbal gaff made by unconscionably frustrating Austin & subsequently mocked by Dorito-spraytanned Derek. However, I would point out that Derek was the inspiration for the above "nip it in the butt" entry, just as I recently made a "case & point"; no one is perfect, dear Reader... ]

Irregardless. = Not a word.

You mean "regardless." Just trust me. This is like when people say "I could care less," when, in fact, they're trying to convey that they couldn't. Oh, those tricky negatives...

&, finally, a write-in suggestion that I have never actually heard from the lips of another, but which I find profoundly, wonderfully bizarre:

It's a doggy dog world. = It's a dog-eat-dog world.

Okay (she says, with knuckle-crack & determined expression): from what I understand, a "doggy dog world" would be a world in which dogs are doggy—thus fulfilling their necessary, teleological, Aristotelian purpose. A "doggy dog world" is the ideal towards which we strive, a world in which there is a place for everything & everything is in its place—basically like Pleasantville, but for some reason, it's populated entirely by dogs. This, then, is opposite from the chaotic, cannibalistic violence of a "dog-eat-dog" world—a saying we use to remind ourselves of the cut-throat, back-stabbing moral cesspool we currently live & die in. We should pray, always, to live in a "doggy dog world," never curse it.

In conclusion, just for fun, I wrote you this short story:

"For all intensive purposes, David Bowie is at my beckoned call," she quipped, off the cusp.

"Irregardless!" I shot back. "Supposably, he's planning to nip it in the butt!"
"Well," she sighed, "it's a doggy dog world. Case & point."

Now, do not-that. & remember: when lost in your nevitch, just turn on the donzer.

Today's Headphone Fodder:

Seriously. It should be "underwear," right? Am I the only one who thinks this??


  1. You're my number one favorite.
    One of my favorite things ever that definitely relates:

    PS- I'm afraid to admit it, but until I read this, I still thought it was "intensive purposes." In conclusion, I'm an idiot.

  2. I've never been able to figure this one out - the seamy underbelly or seedy underbelly? I have narratives to justify each. "Seamy" conjures the slyly hidden stitches of an otherwise plush stuffed animal, but "seedy" makes me think of a fox trodding quietly through underbrush, seeds matted in its hanging bellyfur, so I like that one better.

  3. Also, I had a childhood Beatles mondegreen myself. "She's got a chicken to ride" makes so much more sense to a child growing up with Jumanji than "she's got a ticket to ride." Amirite?

  4. Katie: That video is glorious. & seriously, the whole point of the post was to save others from screwing these up as I have, song lyrics & sayings alike, as recently as this weekend (when I was mocked for the "case & point" debacle). In conclusion, you're no more of an idiot than I.

    Alice: I've always thought (though this is just my brain, mind you) that it was "seedy underbelly," since "seedy" can mean both "seed-covered" & "disreputable." To me, a seedy underbelly means the speakeasy at the back of the funeral home in Some Like It Hot—skeezy, sordid—though honestly, I prefer your trodding fox as a memory-jog.

    Also: riding a chicken totally makes more sense than riding a ticket. This is what I mean about the lyrical obscurity-meets-age factor; how are kids supposed to understand the instrumental implication—"with which to ride"—when the direct, literal one is so much more natural?

  5. (Okay, I lied: "seamy" totally has all the same sordid implications. Dammit.
    Still, there's something about "seedy" that makes me think more readily of grit & grime—perhaps because I'm getting literal & going for the seed-covered fox again—so that still gets my vote, I think. What a puzzle...)

  6. until this moment i thought for sure it was "now it's nothing but a mile away."