Say What? Thoughts on the Absurdities of Speaking and Hearing

I have written about language and communication in previous posts on this blog, mainly because they interest me and because a good portion of my professional life has focused on these topics. The most popular blog post I have published to date is the “Southern Word of the Day” (there are five installments so far), which is a rip-off of Jeff Foxworthy’s hilarious observation of the thick southern accent. I have also taken a more serious approach of examining how sophisticated written language sets humans apart as a species in a post titled “What Separates Us from Dogs and Cabbage.”

We all know that language is sometimes inadequate in expressing thoughts and emotions, illustrated in the common expression that words fail us. At times, this shortcoming is terribly frustrating and even heartbreaking. We are also aware that our brains, along with the mouths and ears they control, are occasionally responsible for epic blunders that can lead to hurt feelings or even catastrophe. Fortunately, most of these miscommunications just end up being incredibly funny, at least after some time has passed.

Whispering
Whispering

The worn-out party icebreaker game of Pass the Message or Chinese Whisper illustrates how anyone can mishear a statement and pass it down a line of listeners, ending up with an absurd distortion of the original message. I think there is a funnier, real-life example. With the advent of the Internet it happens less often now, but who hasn’t had the experience of singing a song for years only to discover that you’ve been singing the wrong words all along? Perhaps the most memorable one is the line from the old Creedence Clearwater Revival song that most people from my generation misheard as “there’s a bathroom on the right.” My favorite personal experience goes back to my teenage years when my father was trying to acclimate himself to pop music. One day, out of the blue, he asked me, “Have you heard that song where they keep singing ‘shake your fool head?’” Of course, he had been listening to KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Shake Your Booty.”

It’s fascinating to me that human beings are so impressionable when it comes to language, especially with accents. Someone who was raised in Minnesota can spend a few years in Alabama, and upon returning to his home state, he finds that his old friends are recognizing a southern twang in his voice. However, sometimes that effect can be more immediate – much more immediate in the case of my mother. She went to the emergency room one time complaining with pains in her upper abdomen. The doctor on duty that evening was most likely from India, and his distinct accent was characteristic for someone raised in the subcontinent. He asked her, “Where does it HUT?” Pointing to her lower chest, my sweet mother replied with no intention whatsoever of mocking her physician, “It HUTS right here.”

When thinking about strong accents, I am always reminded of the nasal magnolia brogue of the Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor. There are recordings of her reading from her own work and being interviewed on television, where we can hear her deep southern pronunciations in words like “wrytah” (writer) and “stawries” (stories). There is the now apocryphal though not unbelievable account of the occasion when O’Connor, as a student at the State University of Iowa, walked into the office of Paul Engle, director of the Writers Workshop. She introduced herself, but her strong accent forced Engle to ask her to repeat herself several times. In a state of exasperation, he finally told her to write down what she was saying so he could understand her. Supposedly, she wrote, “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist.” Apparently, this was her way of communicating to Engle her desire to give up pursuing a journalism degree and to be admitted into the Workshop.

Anecdotes of the breakdown of language are probably endless, but I will close these comical contemplations with one of my favorites of all time. Noisy conditions, bad phone connections, and poor hearing are just a few contributing factors to misunderstandings and even the dissemination of inaccurate information. However, sometimes communication is sabotaged by inexperience, carelessness, or downright stupidity. I won’t attempt to classify one of the best examples of being misunderstood that ever happened to me. I will leave that to the reader’s judgment. I was being interviewed over the phone once by a reporter from a local small-town newspaper. At the end of our conversation, the young woman asked me for my title, to which I replied, “I am the executive director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation.” The story in the newspaper the following week identified me as “the executive decorator of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation.” Some of my friends thought I had gotten a promotion.

Southern Word of the Day (Part 5)

Here is the latest installment of my favorite Southern words, and perhaps Jeff Foxworthy has used these too.  No plagiarism is intended here; I can only plead ignorance, which for me is not a stretch at all.

Pressure. Usage: “You can see inside the window better if you pressure face right up to the glass.”

Turnip. Usage: “Will you please turnip the volume on that TV so I can hear what they’re sayin’.”

Mare. Usage: “Billy Bob is thinking about running for mare in the next city election.”

Manure. Usage: “I like manure truck better than my old one “cause it’s got 4-wheel drive and a gun rack.”

Meander. Usage: “Charlene went with meander momma down to the Wal-mart to look for some curtains for the trailer.”

Entity. Usage: “If you pour a little oil entity pot of spaghetti the noodles won’t stick together.”

Binary. Usage: “I didn’t binary one of them undershirts at the yard sale ’cause they had stains in the arm pits.”

Trauma. Usage: “I’m gonna trauma best to be at the rodeo this Saturday night if I can get back in time.”

Eclipse. Usage: “I like this new barber because eclipse the hair growing out of my ears.”

Pumpkin. Usage: “If the basement floods again, that new pumpkin get the water out in a hurry.”

Southern Word of the Day (Part 4)
Southern Word of the Day (Part 3)
Southern Word of the Day (Part 2)
Southern Word of the Day (Part 1)

Southern Word of the Day (Part 4)

Here is the latest installment of my favorite Southern words, and perhaps Jeff Foxworthy has used these too.  No plagiarism is intended here; I can only plead ignorance, which for me is not a stretch at all.

Ratified.  Usage: “I could have killed that ratified had my pistol with me in the kitchen.”

Fertilize.  Usage: “Earl’s gonna pay dearly fertilize he’s been telling about Billy Bob and Charlene.”

Barn.  Usage: “Times have been tough lately, and we’ve been barn money from my parents just to make payments on the truck.”

Bayou.  Usage: “Do you mind if I sit bayou at Thanksgiving dinner?”

Canopy.  Usage: “I know we’re in a hurry, but canopy before we go?”

Nominee.  Usage: “I fell off the four-wheeler and nominee is swollen and hurts something awful.”

Doctorate.  Usage: “Billy Bob cut his hand, and Charlene needs to doctorate before it gets infected.”

Commodious.  Usage: “Quick! Somebody run in there and tell Billy Bob that the commodious on is clogged up!”

Shawls.  Usage: “This casserole dish left from homecoming at the church last Sunday isn’t ours, so I guess its shawls.”

Automated.  Usage: “It’s almost midnight. Billy Bob and Charlene automated home by now.”

Benefited.  Usage: “Billy Bob’s already benefited for his tux, and he’s a-getting real excited about being the best man at my wedding.”

Coffin.  Usage: “This summer cold has got me coffin up a storm!”

Southern Word of the Day (Part 3)
Southern Word of the Day (Part 2)
Southern Word of the Day (Part 1)

Southern Word of the Day (Part 2)

This is the second installment of Southern words.  For the last couple of years, I have been entertaining myself (not difficult) and my Facebook Friends with posts that I have coined “The Southern Word of the Day.”  Obviously, this gig is a direct rip-off of the comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s redneck words, and there is certainly some overlap.  However, I have imposed some rules on myself that Foxworthy didn’t always follow. For instance, I only use legitimate English-language words, which includes the occasional place name but mostly just regular words.  So I would never use Foxworthy’s “widgedidga” because it isn’t a legitimate word, even though it clearly is a phonetically-correct Southern word that translates to “with you did you.”  So Foxworthy’s word “mayonnaise” as a substitute for “man there is” serves as a good example of my method.  I also try to stay away from the simple two-syllable rip-offs like aster = asked her, or cider = beside her, or otter = ought to, or stark = it’s dark.

I have decided to put together a list of my favorite Southern words that I have posted, and perhaps Jeff Foxworthy has used these too.  No plagiarism is intended here; I can only plead ignorance, which for me is not a stretch at all.

Memberships.  Usage: “Back in the day when we was bar hoppin’ on River Street in Savannah, I memberships used to come by on the river so close you thought you could reach out and touch ’em.”

Artichoke.  Usage: “As cold as it’s been lately, you really artichoke that lawnmower engine before you try to crank it.”

Classified.  Usage: “I’d have been early to classified been able to find a parking place on campus.”

Tortoise.  Usage: “It scared me when I saw Billy Bob coming tortoise with that chain saw in his hands.”

Animator.  Usage: “The hamburger would be so much better if you’d put some bacon animator on it.”

Diversity.  Usage: “Earl did a good job singing, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard diversity was singing on that song at the Uncle Ned’s funeral.”

Mariner.  Usage: “I heard Billy Bob was dating Charlene; then the next thing I know he was mariner.  I wonder if she’s in trouble?”

Hibachi.  Usage: “How can you say Billy Bob don’t love you when hibachi that brand new set of steak knives just last month?”

Southern Word of the Day (Part 1)

Southern Word of the Day

For the last couple of years, I have been entertaining myself (not difficult) and my Facebook Friends with posts that I have coined “The Southern Word of the Day.”  Obviously, this gig is a direct rip-off of the comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s redneck words, and there is certainly some overlap.  However, I have imposed some rules on myself that Foxworthy didn’t always follow. For instance, I only use legitimate English-language words, which includes the occasional place name but mostly just regular words.  So I would never use Foxworthy’s “widgedidga” because it isn’t a legitimate word, even though it clearly is a phonetically-correct Southern word that translates to “with you did you.”  So Foxworthy’s word “mayonnaise” as a substitute for “man there is” serves as a good example of my method.  I also try to stay away from the simple two-syllable rip-offs like aster = asked her, or cider = beside her, or otter = ought to, or stark = it’s dark.

I have decided to put together a list of my favorite Southern words that I have posted, and perhaps Jeff Foxworthy has used these too.  No plagiarism is intended here; I can only plead ignorance, which for me is not a stretch at all.

Fornication.  Usage: “Charlene’s dress is perfect fornication like tonight.”

Covetous.  Usage: “It was so cold that Momma pulled out a blanket and covetous up with it.”

Quesadilla.  Usage: “You need to have your brights on in quesadilla runs out in front of us.”

Spectators.  Usage: “Broccoli is fine, but I spectators would taste a whole lot better with that steak.”

Anemone.  Usage: “I was running just fine anemone started hurting, and I had to stop.”

Ammonia.  Usage: “Would you come open the door?  Ammonia front porch!”

Motif.  Usage: “Billy Bob would smile more if he just had motif.”

Enema.  Usage: “My mother-in-law is always sticking her nose enema business.”

Pasteurize.  Usage: “I walked right pasteurize, and you didn’t even see me!”

September.  Usage: “We have grown everything on that 40 acres you can imagine September.”

Annuity.  Usage: “He was having trouble getting it out, but annuity was trying to say.”

Annihilator.  Usage: “We got stuck in traffic and ended up getting there annihilator than we thought we would.”