The Varieties of Dontopedology: Misspeaking

Sterling Eisiminger

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“In 1975, the parents of a 13-year-old girl were relaxing in New York’s Central Park, basking in the glow of a Broadway-musical matinee. In the distance, Dr. Bill Bruehl, the father, spied the Dalai Lama and his entourage strolling their way. Hurriedly, he explained to his daughter who this esteemed man in the flowing, red robes was. As the young god passed their park bench, the irrepressible child said, ‘Well, Hello, Dalai, we’re glad that you’re back in town!’”Skip Eisiminger

Skip the B.S.

By Skip Eisiminger

Prince Philip asked if Aborigines “still threw spears at each other.”

Prince Philip asked if Aborigines “still threw spears at each other.”

I.“Dontopedology is the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it.”—Prince Philip

Sterling (Skip) Eisiminger

CLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—October 2018—On first meeting Lord Taylor, an African-British peer, in the House of Lords, the Queen’s husband inquired, “And what exotic part of the world do you come from?”

“Birmingham,” Lord Taylor said in his defense.

This “scientific” example of “dyspediora,” also known as foot-in-mouth disease, reminded me of a disturbance in the House of Eisiminger when I was about twelve: Dad was driving Mother and me home from the Gravelly Point complex of government offices in Arlington when I saw a sign at the entrance that read in part “US Corps of Engineers.”

“What’s the Corpse of Engineers, Daddy?” I innocently asked. He was no more amused than when I misspelled his rank, “k-e-r-n-e-l,” on a seventh-grade spelling test. I’ve been rehearsing sentences in my head and double-checking my spelling ever since.

My parents contributed to my love (and fear) of English in the most roundabout way I can imagine. Dad occasionally told his male friends in the bowling alley of the comely British woman he’d met in a bar during the war who invited him to “Knock me up some time.” She meant, of course, “Pay me a visit the next time you’re in town,” but Dad leapt at the outside chance that she just might be a nymphomaniac.

It took him 20 years to get back to London during which time he lost her address. Which is a good thing, for if Mother had heard this Trump-style locker-room talk, she might have hit him with her “spatchelor.” At least that is the word I heard emanating from lips ripened in southern Georgia, but when I spelled it that way on a college paper, I found a question mark beside it. The instructor didn’t know whether it was a diction error or a misspelling. As I later explained to her, the word is “spatula,” a word my mother had misspoken, and I had never questioned.

To Mother’s good fortune and foresight, she did not inherit a trace of her father’s racial animus. My grandfather’s feelings for Jesse, the Black man he’d hired in the 1950s to tend two gardens, shell pecans, and muck the barn, could be read by his oral “barometer.” This gauge was quite simple: “nigra” indicated Jesse had nothing to fear that day; “nigger” meant that Jesse better keep his head down, and “negro” meant he was speaking among the educated whites who’d come to ride his horses. Of course, Jesse was never “Mister,” for if he had a surname, I never heard it. Sometimes we misspeak in silence.

A week before Ingrid and I married, my sesquilingual fiancé was asked by two American friends to translate their vows from German into English. The wedding service was to be performed in a 12th-century church in Velpke, a mostly-Lutheran village in northern Germany. The local minister, however, spoke little or no English, so Ingrid was asked to assist in joining these two Roman Catholics in Holy Matrimony. It all began predictably enough: “I take you, Joan, to be my lawfully wedded wife from this day forward, to join with you and share all that is to come . . . until death do us part.” But the minister, like everyone else, was freezing in this unheated, solid-stone-and-tile church in February, so he raced through the service with hardly a pause, using some rarefied diction and syntax Ingrid barely understood in German. Bravely, she did the best she could, once telling the perplexed couple, “I’m not sure what he just said, but don’t fool around!”

Two children and 20 years later, Bob and Joan divorced, but whether Ingrid’s misbegotten translation was a contributing factor is unknown.

Helpful airport signage.

Helpful airport signage.

II. “Was it Hobson or Jobson who laid Lady Mondegreen on the green?”—The Wordspinner

Most immigrants I’ve met have vivid memories of misspeaking at least once in their adopted language. Those who adopt English as their second or third language struggle with the barbed complexities of that great “hook” once called “englisc” (after that hook-shaped peninsula “angling” into the North Sea from Anglia where the natives “angled” for supper). Here’s a sample

  • At a supper party, when a French guest was asked by her host if she’d like seconds, she said in all earnestness, “Thank you. I’m fed up.”
  • When asked how she met her American husband, the same woman said, “I met him on the pavement.”
  • When a German woman was asked by her future mother-in-law what she did for a living, she proudly said, “I’m a journalist . . . .  I had intercourse with the German foreign minister twice this week alone.”
  • A British fellow, who has lived in the US far longer than he lived in the UK, still asks American waitresses where the “yuh-RYE-nul” is.
  • He also enjoys asking stationers if they carry “rubbers.”
  • An Argentinian woman after climbing a user-friendly access ramp, said, “Oh, Grete, I love your new rump.” In her defense, it must be said that this woman suffers from a slight speech impediment.
  • In my hopeless German, I once referred to a rabbit (Kaninchen) as a chicken (Kan-Hähnchen), puzzled how they were packed in cans.

And then there’s a woman, who shall remain anonymous, who substitutes:

  • “two pods in a pea” for “two peas in a pod,”
  • “moonar ellipse” for “lunar eclipse,”
  • “asteroid” for “asterisk,”
  • “scarcely clad” for “scantily clad,”
  • “The Rupture” for “The Rapture,”
  • “crap grass” for “crab grass,”
  • “Larry King Alive” for “Larry King Live,”
  • “impotent” for “incontinent,”
  • “leopardy” for “leprosy,”
  • and “Dr. Zeus” for “Dr. Seuss.”

No one should wonder why “Anonymous” is my intellectual blood bank, my entrance to unsuspected worlds.

Etiquette in India.

Etiquette in India.

III. Don’t listen to what comes from Donald Trump’s mouth; listen to the words in his heart.—Paraphrase of Kellyanne Conway

In 1975, the parents of a 13-year-old girl were relaxing in New York’s Central Park, basking in the glow of a Broadway-musical matinee. In the distance, Dr. Bill Bruehl, the father, spied the Dalai Lama and his entourage strolling their way. Hurriedly, he explained to his daughter who this esteemed man in the flowing red robes was. As the young god passed their park bench, the irrepressible child said, “Well, hello, Dalai, we’re glad that you’re back in town!”

Then there was the German-born kindergartner, who’d lived in the US for less than a year, who told a handsy classmate, “Let go of me, you SOB!” The girl was sent home with a note pinned to her blouse complaining of “profanity.” The girl’s mother, who’d absorbed even less English than her daughter in the turbulent transition, telephoned the teacher and asked, “What profanity did she use?”

“SOB,” the teacher said. The mother thanked her and called my wife who explained that “SOB was a terse way to accuse someone of being “the son of a female dog.”

“Is that so bad?” said the mother. “I have three sons of bitches myself, and they’re as cute as can be.”

The oral gaffes of the innocent and the ignorant are some of my favorites regardless of the gaffer’s age. Ms. Sonda Ward of Nashville overheard a man explaining to a woman why he had not given her a ride to a church function: “Estelle, if I’d a knowed you’d a want to went, I’d a seed you’d a got to get to go.”

As one American vice president famously said, “I stand by all my misstatements.” I stand with him, for a rosy error has a pulse of its own.

IV. “There’s a special kind of glory in a great mistake.”—Anonymous

For the audience, an aural gaffe may be amusing, but the consequences for the speaker can be consequential:

  • at age 14, Charles Lamb’s stammer led to his expulsion from school;
  • a TV meteorologist’s lewd reference to 69 being the female anchor’s favorite temperature led to his firing;
  • an unguarded comment about the “47 perent of Americans who pay no income tax” and thus feel “entitled” to more of the government’s largesse contributed to Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012;
  • Hillary Clinton’s reference to her alt-right opposition as a “basket of deplorables” contributed to her loss in the 2016 presidential election;
  • Mr. Khrushchev’s “We-will-bury-you” comment at the UN heightened Cold War tensions;
  • a Hasidic Jew’s foreign accent was reason enough to kill him according to his killer,
  • and a poor choice of words by Japanese Prime Minister Suzuki convinced President Truman, unaware it was a poor choice, to drop an atom bomb on Hiroshima.

But before we condemn poor Charles Lamb or Prime Minister Suzuki, we should remember just how difficult it is to be clear in any language, especially speaking off the cuff with nothing on the cuff to read from. We might recall that the sentence, “Nothing is better than English peas,” can mean: “The taste of English peas is so bad that starvation is preferable,” or, “English peas are the best things grown in a garden.”

Likewise, “I wouldn’t miss a daily newspaper” might mean, “A daily newspaper is not essential to my wellbeing,” or, “I never fail to read a newspaper.”

And finally, consider that, “Take it from me,” depending on where the speaker’s stress falls, can mean “trust me,” or, “remove something from me.” As a student once wrote, “Every morning, the sun rises on a new error.” To which James Joyce replied, “Errors are the portals to discovery.” To which I would add, “Please don’t lock the portals.”

To order copies of Skip Eisiminger’s Letters to the Grandchildren (Clemson University Digital Press), click on the book cover below or contact: Center for Electronic and Digital Publishing, Strode Tower, Box 340522, Clemson SC 29634-0522. For Wordspinner: Mind-Boggling Games for Word Lovers, click on the book cover.

Skip Eisiminger's Letters to the Grandchildren

Wordspinner: Mind-Boggling Games for Word Lovers


Sterling Eisiminger

About Sterling Eisiminger

Dr. Sterling (“Skip”) Eisiminger was born in Washington DC in 1941. The son of an Army officer, he traveled widely but often reluctantly with his family in the United States and Europe. After finishing a master’s degree at Auburn and taking a job at Clemson University in 1968, he promised himself that he would put down some deep roots. These roots now reach back through fifty years of Carolina clay. In 1974, Eisiminger received a Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina, where poet James Dickey “guided” his creative dissertation. His publications include Non-Prescription Medicine (poems), The Pleasures of Language: From Acropox to Word Clay (essays), Omi and the Christmas Candles (a children’s book), and Wordspinner (word games). He is married to the former Ingrid (“Omi”) Barmwater, a native of Germany, and is the proud father of a son, Shane, a daughter, Anja, and grandfather to four grandchildren, Edgar, Sterling, Spencer, and Lena.
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5 Responses to The Varieties of Dontopedology: Misspeaking

  1. Avatar Claire Bateman says:

    Delightful, Skip! Yes, there’s an ocean’s worth of ink in student errors alone.

  2. Avatar judy pearce says:

    And from a little Baptist 5 year old, thrust into 1st grade at the local Catholic school: “Hail Mary full of grace, blessed is the fruit of thy loom.” as I dipped my tiny fingers in holy water at the classroom door.

    Of course, there’s that ever popular Christmas song about “Wound John Virgin”….

  3. Avatar Skip Eisiminger says:

    “Sleep in heavenly peas…” the list is endless but rich and satisfying. Many of these examples were collected at AP reading over the years.
    Glad you both enjoyed my meanderings beyond the scream door.

  4. Avatar Ross Konikoff says:

    I love your writing Skip. My dad invented his own language too. My brother and sisters compete, attempting to come up with long forgotten examples every time we gather! LOTS OF FUN.

  5. Avatar Skip Eisiminger says:

    Thanks, Ross–the web has made the world our oyster–hope you saw the signs above that e deftly slipped into my text.
    Remember to spit in your own pocket, not your table mate’s.

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