I magine how difficult it is for a foreigner to learn and master English? The pit-falls, the pronounciation, the syntax, the tenses, the homonyms, synonyms and acronyms all conspire to confound the student. Denis Norden, that doyen of English wordsmiths, one half of the BBC 4 programme My Word! with Frank Muir, described this mental affliction as psychosemantics, which highlighted some of the perplexities of the English dictionary. For instance, he noted that the words ‘vision’ and ‘sight’ are practically synonymous, although telling a girl that she looks a vision would not get the same response as calling her a sight. Also, letting her know that she’s looking cool is a far cry from informing her that she is not hot. The gulf between ‘he’s good-looking’ and ‘he’s looking good’ is generally at least 20 years. He said that there important distinctions between a lady’s virtue and a lady’s virtues; a woman and child as opposed to a woman with child; an Old Master and an old mistress; the difference between a large cat and a big cat; a maternity dress and a paternity suit; in America, there is a right to bear arms, but what about the right to arm bears?

If we gave the name of Poles to people who live in Poland, why were the inhabitants of Holland not known as Holes? Flammable has exactly the same meaning as inflammable, which could lead to an overwhelming disaster, but never simply whelming, although the word underwhelmed is used liberally in film reviews. ‘To cleave’ means to both ‘split apart’ and to ‘cling together’, and a children’s zoo does not comprise compounds and cages full of kids. In the English language, there would appear to be a word for everything, including the medial cleft or vertical indentation on the upper lip, known as a philtrum. Callipygian means having shapely buttocks, while petrichor is a pleasant, distinctive smell of the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather. Paraprosdokian is a figure of speech in which the surprise end of the sentence causes the reader to re-read the first part. A good example of this would be the famous line from the English writer Hector Hugh Monroe (also known as Saki,) ‘the cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went.’

There is even a name for mishearing phrases, song-titles and lyrics; ‘Mondegreen’ was coined in the fifties by columnist Sylvia Wright, when she misheard the second line of a Scottish folk song ‘Oh, they have slain the Earl o’ Morray and laid him on the green’ as Lady Mondegreen. An easy mistake to make. Rodolpho’s aria to Mimi in La Bohème slightly loses it poignancy when it comes out as ‘You’re tiny – and it’s frozen’. Gladly the cross-eyed bear is a frequently misheard hymn by children, although grown-ups do no better with ‘God-damned sinners reconciled’ from Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Desmond Dekker and the Aces’ The Israelites is famously misheard as ‘Oh, oh, my ears are alight’. Others include ‘I can see Shirley now Lorraine has gone’, and Bob Dylan’s ‘Knock, knock, knockin’ on Karen’s door’ and ‘The ants are my friend’ from Blowin’ in the Wind. Kenny Rogers’ Country and Western dirge is almost an improvement with ‘You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille; four hundred children and a dog with no wheels . . .’ What on earth did George Gershwin’s publisher think when he first read, cold, and without the benefit of phonetics, the lyrics for his new song: ‘You say tomato, I say tomato; you say potato, I say potato; tomato, tomato; potato, potato; let’s work the whole thing out’. What’s this, George, clever or something?

A couple of friends who own a brewery in West Sussex decided to call their new strong stout Mountweazel, saying that ‘you know what a mountweazel is, don’t you?’ Well, no I did not. In the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia and you’ll find an entry for Lillian Virginia Mountweazel, a fountain designer turned photographer who was celebrated for a collection of photographs of rural American mailboxes titled Flags Up! Mountweazel, the encyclopedia indicates, was born in Bangs, Ohio, in 1942, only to die ‘at 31 in an explosion while on assignment for Combustibles magazine.’ Hey, wait a minute, that sounds a bit fishy! And, indeed it is. It was apparently an old tradition for encyclopedia compilers to put in a fake entry to protect their copyright. Word leaked out that the recently published second edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary contained a made-up word that starts with the letter ‘e,’ and having reduced the number of words from 3,128 to 360 questionable ones, they were reduced further to a short list of six potential mountweazels, and given to a drudge of lexicographers to ferret out the fake one. It turned out to be ‘esquivalience’, defined as ‘the wilful avoidance of one’s official responsibilities’, and the word has since been spotted on Dictionary.com, which cites Webster’s New Millennium as its source. Cartographers also use, what they term as, ‘trap streets’ or ‘paper towns’, to unmask plagiarists by copying and re-printing fictional places. In 2001, the Automobile Association agreed to settle a case out of court for £20,000,000 when it was caught copying Ordnance Survey maps, although the identifying ‘fingerprints’ were not deliberate errors, but rather stylistic features such as the width of roads.

Back to mis-heard words, a lady allegedly phoned the BBC to complain that she had just turned on the radio and the first words she heard were ‘. . . and tits like coconuts.’ Outraged, she immediately turned it off and rang Broadcasting House. It was pointed out to her she had tuned into Gardeners’ Question Time and the panel were talking about feeding garden birds during the long, cold winter months. She could have tuned into Quote Unquote and heard Groucho Marx saying “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”

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