Words that come out aren’t always what is heard

Contributing WriterMarch 17, 2014 

Gen. George S. Patton of World War II fame was said to have observed, “Americans and the British are two civilizations separated by a common language.” Patton, never a stickler for linguistic finery, was better suited to bending and breaking things, but he probably got this one right.

On occasion, I thought Patton’s theory could have been extended to other persuasions.

I’m thinking of Milton, a retired farmer of German extraction, who worked for me on my Wyoming farm. He was the dean of mixed metaphors, e.g., “That’s water over the bridge” or “You have too many balls in the fire.”

One time I asked him what a particular person had to say. “How would I know?” he snorted, in his heavy German accent. “He never shut up!”

Milton had his struggles with English. He would have certainly had a time with the wording of the Arizona anti-gay rights issue. I know I did. If it was anti, how could it be vetoed?

I was involved in an example of misinterpretation back in ’55, when I was discharged from the Army. The venue was Fort Dix, N.J. I decided to buy a new car and take a leisurely trip back to Wyoming.

A few days into my trip, I called my parents. They warned me to beware of bad weather.

I knew those prairie wind and hailstorms could mess up a car in short order. That afternoon, I stopped at a gas station in a little Missouri hillbilly town to fill up. When I went inside to pay my bill, I asked the attendant if he had heard a weather report.

Glancing at his radio on the cluttered counter, he drawled, “I heard it’s supposed to turn sour tomorrow sometime.”

He must have realized my concern, because when I got into my car, he hollered from the doorway, “I wouldn’t put too much stock in that forecast, young fella. That’s just a cheap little radio!”

Apparently it was. The weather held, and I made it home safely.

Silence can have a greater effect than a verbal response. On his weekly show, comic Jack Benny – best known for being a tightwad – was being robbed. The thief threatened, “Your money or your life!” There was no reaction. Frustrated, the gangster repeated, “I said, ‘Your money or your life!’ Didn’t you hear me?”

Slowly, Benny responded, “I’m thinking.”

A good radio was a valuable information source in those days. My father had an Atwater-Kent, which was top of the line.

I remember being behind the case when it was turned on and marveled when the tubes would light up. That instrument had an all-business look with a balanced dial that required little effort to spin. Its long needle skimmed over mountains, crossed oceans and deserts, forcing its nose into cities with dazzling speed and impunity.

It ran off a 6-volt battery and had an antenna wire that traveled from the receiver out the window of the farmhouse to the barn, terminating high on the windmill. There wasn’t one corner of the Earth it couldn’t eavesdrop on, or so we thought.

On one occasion, we were listening to the BBC. Churchill was speaking. My grandfather, annoyed with the prime minister’s accent, growled, “Why can’t the SOB speak English?”

“He is, Grandpa!” I blurted, immediately feeling the sting of my mother’s backhand. In those days, children were to be seen, not heard.

For me, the best example of confusion came about during a dialogue between Andy Brown and Kingfish on the old bigoted program, “Amos ‘n Andy.”

Kingfish was pressuring Andy: “Didn’t you hear what I was saying?”

Andy responded, “Oh, I heard what you were sayin’ all right ... It’s just you weren’t sayin’ what I was hearin’!”

What’s stated and what’s understood can be two different things.

Al Bartlett of Gig Harbor, a retired teacher and farmer, is one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page. Email him at albert.bartlett@comcast.net.

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