One of the great challenges in writing and attempting to communicate effectively through the written word is that print tends to be absent tone of voice and body language. A line simply delivered through text is often interpreted differently than is a spoken line accompanied by the body language of a wink or knitted eyebrows. People have embraced emoticons to try to make up for that text deficiency, but even those miss the mark with considerable frequency.

Much of what I write is decidedly tongue-in-cheek, but I don’t always know if it is received that way by the reader. Still, I just keep working on developing writing style just as if someone might actually care. Self-delusion can be a happy state. I recommend it to everyone who is essentially non-violent and has no family responsibilities.

It occurs to me that just as text can be misinterpreted due to missed cues, oral communications are also sometimes misinterpreted because the word combinations sound too much like other word combinations.

I remember a song from my youth called, “Domani,” for example. “Domani” is Italian for “tomorrow.” The song went along in an Italian-American mix of languages that liberally hopped from one language to the other, but my recollection was a verse which went something like: “Domani, forget domani! Let’s live for now and anyhow, who needs domani? The moonlight, let’s share the moonlight. Perhaps together, we will never be again!” It was not a real Rocker ‘n’ Roller, like the songs I most liked as a kid, but it got pretty good air play on the radio.

However, as a kid, I wasn’t hearing, “Tomorrow, forget tomorrow!” I was hearing, “Da money, forget da money! Let’s live for now and anyhow, who needs da money?” The cool thing about it was that the lyrics seemed to work almost equally well regardless of which meaning one was hearing. One version was attesting to the need to enjoy the present moment and abandon oneself to it. The misunderstood version was attesting to the fact that the most valuable things in life (love, moonlight) were free!

Another song from my youth that intentionally played off that homophonic quirk is the great Chuck Berry song, “Johnny B. Goode.” In reading the song lyrics, there is no question whatsoever that Johnny B. Goode was the name of the little country boy who could play guitar so very well, but many listeners enjoyed the ambiguity of hearing perhaps that the refrain was actually someone’s exhortation that he ‘be good,’ instead. As in, “Johnny, be good tonight!”

An amusing story related to me involves the misunderstood lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  The woman who reported it to me remembered wondering why God bought swords made in Switzerland, especially if they were ‘terrible’ (…his terrible Swiss sword).  She also wondered why he didn’t get good swords probably made in close-by Pittsburgh.

Another amusing case of oral miscommunications due to homophonic word combinations leads me to tell you about the funniest misunderstanding I’d ever heard.

A couple I knew reported that this had actually happened to them. It was the 60s. They were young and had just been introduced to each other. Both of them were buzzed out on something that had been passed around at a party, which no doubt enhanced the resulting misconception. The woman, in an effort to get the man to tell her something meaningful about himself, asked him, “So tell me, who is . . .?” (In the space provided by the ellipsis, she said his full name, but his actual name is immaterial for this explanation of the event.) In his attempt to reply intelligently to a question posed to him in the third person by using his name rather than the more casual ‘you,’ the man began by saying, “I’m this guy,” but then he paused to reflect on how he might finish his sentence. The woman, who was stoned, and at that moment inclined to be a believer of audacious claims, heard him say, “I’m the sky!” His statement ‘blew her mind,’ or so she claimed, and he was never able to finish his sentence due to her quick and passionate response. In any case, she did not let such a man as that escape her grasp. She became ‘the Earth,’ I think. They married and had three children. Somewhere along the line they reviewed that incident, got it right and had a good laugh at their own expense.

So it seems that although text has limitations, verbal communications can sometimes go awry as well, often enough with entertaining effect.

Do you remember a time when one person said one thing and another person heard something entirely different in meaning? I’d love to hear about it, even if you just report it to me like this: “I’m this guy” – sounded like, “I’m the sky.” Context would be nice too, but I can probably make up some context, just like a joke can be constructed after having heard only the punchline.

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