Friday, February 11, 2011

"What we've got here is a failure to communicate."

That classic line was spoken twice in the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke -- first by the warden, played by Strother Martin, and later by Luke, played by Paul Newman.

Unfortunately, writers, authors, editors and broadcasters often have communication failures. Sometimes they hear words, but the words they think they heard are not the words that the speaker spoke.

Years ago, probably in the 1980s, the New York Daily News reported on a teenage fashion trend: "wearing pumice."

In reality, high school kids were not wearing lumps of volcanic rock which are normally used as an abrasive to remove calluses from feet. They were wearing Pumas, a brand of sneakers -- which the reporter was unaware of. (There's a double problem here. When "pumice" is pronounced properly, its first syllable rhymes with "hum" -- not with "room." A reporter should know this.)

Sometimes a print or broadcast journalist will hear a word and think she or he understands what it means, but doesn't.

In 1965, a power blackout shut down the supply of electricity to New York, New Jersey, New England and Ontario, Canada.  Over 30 million people were powerless for up to 12 hours.

I heard a news report broadcast by WOR radio (which was operating with an emergency generator). The newsperson told us that there had been "a failure of the power grid," and as soon as a replacement could be located and installed, power would be restored.

The sincere but ignorant person apparently assumed that a power grid was a simple gizmo that could be purchased at a nearby Radio Shack -- not the network that connects power companies in multiple states.

The misunderstanding probably would not happen today, when independent people proudly "live off the grid."

New Haven, Connecticut (home of Yale University) seems to be a hotbed of mis-speaking, resulting from mis-hearing and mis-reading.

Someone attending the second year of high school in most places is a “sophomore,” from the Greek words for “wise” (sophos) and “foolish” (moros). In New Haven, I heard it pronounced “southmore.”

When a department store advertised a set of bedroom furniture pieces in a newspaper, it was described as a “bedroom suite.” In New Haven, people who were enticed by the ad and went to the store would ask to see a “bedroom suit.” Some of them were probably shown pajamas.

Some local stores — either out of ignorance or in an effort to correct the pronunciation of their ignorant customers — advertised “bedroom sweets,” thereby setting the English language back to the pre-Chaucer era.

As a teenager I sold clothing and shoes in my father’s store, and my ears were offended several times a day.

Many people tried to buy “posturepedic” shoes. Posturepedic is a brand of mattresses made by Sealy. Orthopedic shoes are designed to correct foot problems.

Not everyone in New Haven was educated at Yale.

Men who were buying pants (and the women accompanying them) would discuss having the “crouch alternated” instead of the “crotch altered.” I was often tempted to say, “Yes, madam, we have an extensive line of alternative crouches.”

Working for a clothing store, I got first crack at new fashions. I was one of the first to wear ski gloves to my high school. When I approached the school entrance, a classmate spotted them and exclaimed, “Man, them mother-fuckin’ gloves is co-legent!” I hope he learned how to pronounce “collegiate” by the end of his southmore year.

And don't get me started on malapropisms. My wife has a cousin who says "old timer's disease" for "Alsheimer's" disease.

And don't get me started on editors who replace an author's correct words with wrong words. I once challenged a co-author's vocabulary -- but I was wrong.

This blog post is not complete yet. I must acknowledge the New York newscasters who each November say "Macy's Day Parade" (Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade),  and also "Port of Authority" (Port Authority of New York and New Jersey).

(Newman photo from Warner Bros., RadioShack from Time mag, mattress from Sealy, shoes from, crouch from, crotch from, ski glove form Hestra, parade from Flickr.)


  1. Elliott (two ells and two tees)February 11, 2011 at 4:33 AM

    As usual: very good, very important, very funny. Thanks!

  2. Great post; and great timing. (Too funny as I almost typed grape in place of great). Yes, I believe there may have been a grape in my head. That happens from time to time.

    But Great Blog.