At the risk of being called a name-dropper, my friend, Sen. Al Simpson called me yesterday, and he apparently misinterpreted something I casually mentioned as we talked. I said, “It's a coincidence you called since I ran into Sue today.” My friend Al replied, “You ran over my daughter? Was she hurt?”
We exchanged a few more word-play quips, but Al couldn't talk long since he was leaving again for D.C. the next morning. He mentioned that he had “managed to tick off nearly everyone in the country lately,” but I assured him I'd never be among them. For someone so high-profile (He was once a Senator, ya know?) to remain concerned about the welfare of a stumblebum like me speaks volumes of the gangly statesman.
Obviously I hadn't actually run over Sue Simpson Gallagher with my truck, so I should have more carefully worded it as, “I came across Sue today,” or “My and Sue's paths crossed.” But even if my friend, Sen. Al Simpson's confusion was feigned, it highlights what is often a huge obstacle in casual conversation: what I like to call “Inadvertent Simile Snafu.”
So many distinct words are so similar in spelling and/or pronunciation, yet so distant in meaning, that intent can be badly misconstrued. For instance, “incompetent” and “incontinent.” That might not be the best example, since those two words at least aren't diametrically opposed. For instance my dog Trina, since she was rendered incontinent when she was (in this case, literally) run into, it's not entirely inaccurate to confuse the words. Her keester, now being “incontinent,” is in a way, “incompetent.”
But other words separated by only a single letter or two can lead the listener wildly astray. I once heard a pastor delivering a sermon about some Biblical leader who spent so much alone time with his “concubine” that his wife was furious. I sat there in my pew (not to be confused with “P-U; you stink!”) thinking: “But in the husband's defense, when a man works the fields all day, it's easy to become attached to your farm equipment. At least he didn't run off with one of the oxen.”
I later learned that a concubine is, “a woman who is the lover of a wealthy, married man, but with the social status of a subordinate form of wife, often kept in a separate home.” A combine of course, is defined as “a machine that reaps and threshes grain.” I was even more outraged though, to finally realize this Godly man was reaping — and quite possibly threshing – his concubine, or mistress, if you will.
Should someone call me “supercilious,” which means “full of contempt and arrogance,” I might assume they admired my “super-silliness.” I'm not ashamed of my humor, nor should I be. But I am never arrogant and I don't show contempt, except once for the court, which landed me in the klink, or “hooskow.”
These nearly-identical words and phrases can be misconstrued so easily that complimentary can turn caustic in the stink of an eye. I might write to an author, “I just finished reading your book and I was appalled throughout.” She might angrily reply, “Oh yeah, joke boy? Well, I just read your latest column and I too was sickened!” She would never realize I was “enthralled,” but my spell-check was too illiterate to understand context.
Countless word similes can get one into trouble — “onion” and “bunion” for instance, among other food-related requests. While ordering a burger at a fast-food window, if I was asked, “Would you like flies with that?” I might superciliously answer, “Well, what do you think, Stupid?”
Cognizant of this type of misunderstanding, I would never tell an overweight, hard-of-hearing woman, “Well, at least you've got your health,” since “health” and “girth” sound too much alike.
Not to belabor the point, but if I were to offer my opinion on a subject and someone accused me of “vacillating too often,” I'd defensively snap, “How dare you judge me? And what business is it of yours how frequently I do it?!” Obviously “vacillate” can easily be misunderstood for…well, “exacerbate,” or “promulgate,” to name a few.
I'd like to add that no matter how others might judge my friend, Sen. Al Simpson's sometimes-irreverent wit, I happen to find it quite regressing. And I don't just bring that up to name-drip.