Insult and intimidation should never be tolerated. So when a fast-food outlet in Paris recently received online threats because of a supposed link to the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine, French police took the matter deadly seriously. It quicky transpired that the eatery was not connected with Vladimir Putin – spelled Poutine in French – or his regime; its specialty was la poutine, a Quebecois mash-up of gravy and cheese curds slathered on fries, once described as a concoction to be consumed only by the heartless.
Getting the wrong end of the semantic stick is all too easy. On the day that the U.S. reported the first person-to-person transmission of Covid-19, online searches for “Corona beer virus” spiked as people worried about a link between a Mexican brew and a coronavirus. Just recently, a congresswoman railed against the heavy-handed thuggery of a cold Spanish soup – confusing gazpacho with Gestapo – and immediately became the butt of online jokes (“How dare [she] blame Gazpacho, when we all know that Vichyssoise Violence is the real culprit”). The coiner of the phrase, Marjorie Taylor Greene, was immediately nicknamed Marjorie Malaprop, in honor of the eponymous, linguistically challenged character in an 18th-century British comedy of manners.
True, Ms. Taylor Greene is not alone in perpetrating malapropisms that regularly go viral. From George W. Bush’s “holding our allies hostile (hostage)” to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s boast about U.S. states being “lavatories (laboratories) of innovation,” many public figures only open their mouth to change feet. The problem is just as rife in France, where it is compounded by politicians having only a passing acquaintance with lexis and syntax. A gaffe made in 2007 by the ultimately unsuccessful presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, who used the non-existent noun bravitude instead of bravoure (bravery), is still widely mocked. And the grammatically approximate former president Nicolas Sarkozy – ils se batturent instead of ils se battirent (they fought) – readily serves as the example not to follow.
In fact, language-mangling is commonplace; and everyone is susceptible to foot-in-the-mouth disease, from presidents downward (or upward, depending on one’s point of view). Some of these slip-ups are likely deliberate – a way of defusing a tense situation or pricking a bubble of pomposity (“It’s déjà vu all over again”); others are the product of misunderstanding, partial interpretation, or both – what the psycholinguist Steven Pinker calls “not playing with a full linguistic deck.” The perpetrators are often held to account by talk show hosts and journalists, who dig down through the verbiage to find the dross beneath. In France, this has been elevated to an art form thanks to the annual Political Humor Prize. Bestowed by the Press Club de France, the prize “rewards” the authors of either the sharpest witticism – “Socialists are so fond of poor people that they create them” – or the clumsiest gaffe: “The best way to solve unemployment is to work.” The awards also include a special prize, the aptly named Prix Nocchio, awarded to the biggest barefaced liar: “I’m not a fraudster, just a forgetful taxpayer.”
One of the regular winners is Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a former prime minister whose sallies form a category of their own: les raffarinades. His phrases range from the mangled – “Our road is straight but the slope is steep” – to the downright weird: “Win the ‘yes’ needs the ‘no’ to win against the ‘no’!,” spoken in English (sic) during a European referendum debate. One of Mr. Raffarin’s specialisms is les lapalissades, or truisms, like “Young people are destined to become adults.” Such clichés are named for the 16th-century aristocrat Jacques de La Palice, who uttered platitudes of such stunning banality (“The best way not to lie is to tell the truth”) that his tombstone reputedly bore the epitaph S’il n’était pas mort, il serait toujours en vie (If he weren’t dead, he would still be alive). In fact, the unfortunate seigneur was caught in his own device: The second clause actually read: il ferait toujours envie (He would still arouse envy), but the alternative seemed more likely. So, though famous in life for his own lapalissades, in death he became the victim of a mondegreen, or a misinterpreted word or sound.
Mondegreen itself is a mondegreen. The American humorist Sylvia Wright once described how, as a child, she listened to her mother reading aloud an old Scottish ballad about a nobleman killed in battle. But instead of “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray and laid him on the green,” Ms. Wright understood that two people had died: the Earl Amurray and Lady Mondegreen. Nowadays the word is mostly associated with misheard poetry or song lyrics – “I’ve got two chickens to paralyze” instead of “two tickets to paradise” – which cause a breakdown between speech production and reception. The actual reasons for the disconnection are unclear, but most of us have suffered from it at one time or another. The results can be amusing and surreal in equal measure: Imagine a jailhouse full of hardened criminals dressed in bargain-basement women’s clothing and singing “Everybody in a wholesale frock” (instead of “in the whole cell block”).
One of the obvious causes of this phenomenon is the absence of word breaks in the flow of human conversation. This poses a particular problem to learners of a foreign language. I long wondered why Edith Piaf sang about a pink airplane, only to discover that l’avion rose was actually la vie en rose. Yes, mondegreens exist in French, too. Technically, they are known – worryingly – as hallucinations auditives, though the layman’s term is mots en tire-bouchon (corkscrew words) or mots tordus (twisted words). They even have a champion: le prince de Motordu, a fairy-tale prince with a corkscrew tongue who lives in a hat (chapeau instead of château) and yearns for someone to tell him beautiful smooth pears (belles lisses poires/belles histoires). First published in 1980, the Motordu books have been so successful that they are now used in grammar classes, and a street in Saint-Ouen-sur-Seine, near Paris, has been named after the garbling hero.
Perhaps the most important characteristic of twisted, misheard, and misinterpreted words is humor. Nowhere is this more evident than in macaronic language (pace the French president), which is based on bilingual puns. The acne (sorry, acme) of the genre is Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames, an annotated collection of supposedly French poems which are actually phonetically and lexically skewed versions of Mother Goose rhymes, complete with tongue-in-cheek footnotes. For example, Un petit d’un petit isn’t Humpty Dumpty but “the inevitable result of a child marriage.”
The tricks that our ears and tongues can play on us are endless, and our mastery of a language cannot always be taken for granite. Sorry, granted. So the next time you catch a politician talking about “squirmishes” between religious sects, or, poignantly, hear a song called “Crimean River” (“Cry Me a River”), just pause and listen carefully. After all, the jury is still out on whether Jimi Hendrix wanted to kiss the sky. Or kiss this guy.