Getting It Wrong
Maybe you’ve heard about the child who came home from Sunday School reporting he’d been learning a song about a cross-eyed bear named Gladly. The song turned out to be one called “Gladly the Cross I’d Bear.” Now, let me tell you some similar misunderstandings of which I myself have been guilty.
One of them I’ve remembered since childhood, and only recently learned the true version. The way I remembered the song from grade-school, it said, “Jesus’s bits are shining for a pale moonlight.” Of course, I’d long realized this couldn’t be right. But only now, thanks to Google, do I know that what it really said was “Jesus bids us shine with a clear pure light.”
(You may wonder how a little Jewish boy came to be learning Christian hymns in public school. The answer is that this was Toronto in the early 1940s, and in those days nobody made a fuss about such things, especially in a city which, because of its reputation for Christian rectitude, was known as “Toronto the Good.”)
But there were other misconceptions, which I carried away from Bible readings. One of them arose from hearing about how the Children of Israel worshipped in the desert. What I couldn’t understand was, how did those warships ever get into the desert?
And it wasn’t only scriptural expressions that sent me in wrong directions. When I heard accounts of somebody “turning over a new leaf,” I imagined an area strewn with fallen leaves, and the person going around, carefully turning each one over.
But it’s trying to deal with foreign languages that is notoriously a cause of confusion. On my first hitchhiking visit to France as a teenager, when trying to find my way out of Paris, I was told by several people that I should go “tout droit.” Having learned enough French in school to know that “Droit” means “Right,” I kept taking right turns, until I became hopelessly lost. Only later did I establish that “tout droit” means “straight ahead!”
And, speaking of language confusion, I once came across a phrase-book published in Japan for Japanese visitors to the U.S. I couldn’t read the Japanese – but one of the expressions it was explaining was given in English as: “Don’t Be a Little Bug.”
A true incident of World War II shows how easily non-native speakers can go wrong in English. In 1942, some German saboteurs landed from a U-boat on the U.S. East Coast. They’d been specially selected for their knowledge of English, and their supposed ability to pass themselves off as Americans. One of them, however, in talking to a real American, immediately aroused suspicion, when he happened to describe the bright sunlight as “a sight for sore eyes,” (when he clearly meant that it made the eyes sore.) This little misuse of an idiom led to the capture of the entire group, most of whom were eventually executed.
But errors come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. Have you heard of how a whole edition of the King James Bible had to be scrapped (in 1631), because one word had somehow been omitted? It was the word “not” in the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery”!
Going from a miniscule error to some gigantic ones, we might ask how Napoleon (1812) and Hitler (1941) both came to make the same major mistake of invading Russia. Also, you probably know about Ford’s Edsel disaster, and about that famously wrong 1948 Chicago Tribune banner headline: DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN. But how could so many of us have been so wrong about Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – and about Donald Trump’s chances of becoming president?
Let me conclude with a story of another linguistic mistake, which I learned in French class at school. This story is obviously not true, but it taught us an important lesson in pronunciation: A young lady in France is unfortunately afflicted with a large mouth, which she wants to make smaller. She goes to a doctor, who recommends an exercise in which she is to say “petit pomme” (“small apple”) repeatedly several times a day. These words require a minimum opening of the lips. She goes away, but returns a few months later complaining that it hasn’t worked – her mouth is now larger than ever.
The trouble turns out to be that instead of “apple” she had thought he’d said “pear” (poir). Correct pronunciation of a word such as “poir” requires opening the mouth as widely as possible!