Diagnosing bungles, bloops and blunders

It’s no wonder my cousin and I call it “that thing” when we try to tell the other she has botched a common expression. “You just did that thing!” she points, as though keeping score, or at least assuring herself she’s co-dependent in her linguistic-ifficulties.

What we mean by “that thing” is the embarrassing tendency we both have to mix metaphors, cliches and common sayings.

For example, it wouldn’t be uncommon for one of us to advise someone to “always look on the right side of life.” We also might be caught getting it half right by discussing a “rendev-a-trois” or warning against the “eyes of March.”

This also pertains to single words. For example, after agonizing over a recent error-plagued column of mine, my editor added, “By the way, the point is ‘moot,’ not ‘mute.’ It’s a not a ‘mute point.’ It’s a ‘moot point.’ Just thought you ought to know Ö”

Of course I know. Who did he think he was? The point is moot, and you mute the television. I’m older than this guy. But, alas, I cannot argue with him. Although I can almost speak four languages and consider writing and punning to be the largest cerebral playground ever, I cannot tell you the difference between “submerge” and “subvert,” “invoke” and “evoke,” “voracious” and “veracity,” or “tomatoe” and “tomato.” It just doesn’t register!

My friend has a version of this. She tends to substitute “thingy” for the words she doesn’t know, hence creating the term “pully-uppy thingy,” when referring to my car Club or requesting “that dippy saucy veggie thingy” when wanting ranch dressing for the fries.

My cousin and I discovered we both suffer from this faux-blah while we were walking around the lake. I referred to a heartbroken friend we know, saying he just needed to move on and “pull himself up by his boot strings.” She agreed and added that “when the going gets tough, it just goes to show ya.”

We admitted our difficulty with the
language and compared all the sayings we had botched. I told her how, when asked during an interview about my philosophy on creating a spontaneous workplace, I proudly answered, “nothing ventured, nothing lost,” and about another incident where I’d confused the expression and told someone to “Quit or get off the pot.”

We wondered if “that thing” came from our Yiddish ancestry or if it resulted from a childhood traumatized by older kids with squirt guns. We concluded it must be a family thing, because my dad has done this as long as I can remember. When we were kids, he used to embarrass us by pronouncing all of our friend’s names wrong.

He still does it. He recently called to offer me sympathy, saying, “I heard you broke up with Thor” (which would be the equivalent of referring to “Tom” as “Thought”). Sure, my dad is working on the cure for cancer, but no matter how many times I tell him, he just can’t seem to remember I live by “Greenlake,” not “Graylake.”

The real issue, though, is that while doing “that thing” can be cute and endearing, it’s frustrating and embarrassing. The aggravating part is I know these words! Sure as gold, they are there, resting safely between the neo-cortex and limbic systems of the brain. I struggle to release them into the air but usually end up going for the default words, “totally” or “awesome.”

The process is bizarre because the words don’t quite crystallize. They appear half-developed in my brain, like those buy-‘n’-bake uncooked pizzas. I know they are there, ready to go, but apparently they never finish baking because when I pull them out of the oven they seem to be missing a pepperoni or two. They get lost in the translation, forcing me to say “terminable” when I mean to say to be “determined.” It’s no wonder folks look at me like I was raised with the Teletubbies.

I remember being in nursery school as a kid and “play talking” on the phone. I
strutted around the make-believe deco kitchen, all dressed up in independent mother attitude like my own mom. “Oh, Margie,” I’d said dramatically into the phone, “It’s just the same as the clanadodopie! Can you tremor the langoody? Yeah. I know,” I’d sigh, pausing to inhale the candy cigarette, “It’s just one of those detanglers of sasha bunky. That’s right.”

The theories I have are basic. First of all, my standard disclaimer: I have attention deficit disorder. Second, my brother always told me I was dropped on my head as a kid. I’ve also watched a lot of stupid television. Lastly, I have a neurological condition called “synesthesia” which causes me to see sound and hear pictures. No, I’m not high on LSD or Fantasia; this is a valid condition that affects one in some many Americans. Even Nabokov had it. Really.

In other words, while there are those fortunate lingophiles who can manipulate truth, humor, sap and honesty into flashy yet effective puns, poems, songs and other genius forms of word-decor, there are some of us who still cling stubbornly to the pre-verbal tones of our youth. The linguistic security blanket, as it were.

Perhaps this explains why I find Dan Quayle so endearing. Anyone who can say, “We will move forward, we will move upward and, yes, we will move onward” while campaigning is obviously banking on the rhythm of words, not the content.

But despite all my theories, I guess there’s always the possibility I am just slow. But if that’s not the pottle calling the teapot black, I don’t know what is.


Roxanne Sadovsky’s column appears alternate weeks. She welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to [email protected]