Considering the complexity of the English language, rich with synonyms, homonyms, and metaphors, it is amazing that humans understand each other as well as they do. Still, if we could eliminate misunderstanding most therapists, lawyers, marriage counselors, and peacekeepers would be out of a job.
Children play an old game called telephone or gossip which also illustrates how garbled messages can become once they leave the first pair of lips. A single misunderstood word can give the sentence a widely different meaning.
It can be very confusing for a child when they have missed understood a word and then hear it in a different context. I remember when my son was first learning to play Monopoly before he could read most of the words. He thought Pacific Avenue was Specific Avenue. He finally asked me to explain this oddity when I use specific in a non-Monopoly context too many times.
He also thought Qaddafi was a car. I wondered what brand of oil Gaddafi would use.
News broadcasts, often told too quickly, are a great source of misunderstanding. When President Bush made a cultural faux pas and offended the Australians, it was the topic of discussion at our dinner table.
“Did you hear?” said our daughter. “The American president gave the V for victory sign wrong when he drove past some Australians in his car and now they’re mad at him.”
“That’s not true,”said my son.
“It is so,” I said my daughter. “I saw on the news. We even talked about it in school.”
“That’s impossible,” continued my son who was an avid student of geography. “How can the president of the United States drive. his car to Australia?”
Perhaps in a Gaddafi.
After further discussion of the history of the V sign, my son offered his own interpretation. He thought that perhaps politicians use the two fingers up to signal the postal employees to raise the price of stamps two cents.
Even simple words used in slightly different ways can be misleading. My husband said they were 2000 applications to attend the faculty of education this year but only 400 seats were available. My son wanted to know if the rest would have to stand. I hoped it wouldn’t have to be in an unemployment line after graduation.
I often wonder about the hidden messages in questions. Recently a waitress asked if I wanted something tall and fruity or short and tart. Neither sounded appealing to my tastes.
You can often tell a lot about someone by what they don’t say. In a West Coast First Nations burial ground, time is marked by centuries. The headstones say which century a person died in. That certainly speaks of a long-range view. Without ever having met them, you suspect they are the kind of people who would support Spaceguard. Spaceguard is a proposed project that would track asteroids and comets heading toward earth that are capable of killing one billion people or more.
We are living in a time when the information highway is spreading, yet few people can read the road signs. If you’ve ever followed a debate on a computer bulletin board you will have seen communication and miscommunication at its highest level. Unfortunately, those who don’t learn to ride the information highway will be bypassed or perhaps driven right over. Still, it is a message labyrinth even King Minos would find puzzling.
Numerous episodes of In Search Of and Ancient Mysteries are devoted to unraveling messages left by previous cultures. I shutter to think what future cultures may deduce from our leavings, Madonna videos, Beavis & Butthead cartoons, newspaper war coverage, Snow CDs, bathroom graffiti, and income tax guides. If we have trouble understanding it as we live through it, future civilizations will be stunned. Anthropologists and archeologists will probably term it as the Time of Insanity. The general public will ask them to be more specific, especially about the game called Monopoly.
Originally published in the Chronicle-Journal/Times News
February 6, 1994