When I was a little girl, I was under the impression that every conversation had to include at least one old Russian saying. Fortunately for my friends, I have outgrown this notion, even though I must admit that the sayings still make a lot of sense. One of my favorite sayings is the one about hearing a ringing but not knowing where the bell is, which is what happens with language when people mishear a common expression they’re not familiar with. The results can be at once funny and confusing. As a news junky, I hear both journalists and their guests frequently tumble into such linguistic traps.
“For all intensive purposes, we lack a Middle Eastern strategy,” opined one military expert recently — and he may well have been right. However if he had been an expert in language as well, he would have known that “intensive purposes” simply makes no sense. What he needed to say was “for all intents and purposes.”
On the same subject, another guest suggested that the President needed to “hone in on the problem.” To hone means to sharpen. How can anyone sharpen in on a problem? What she meant was that the President needed “to home in on the problem” — in other words, to hit home, to get to the heart of the problem.
Meanwhile an “investor” in a financial ad warned viewers that they need the services of his wealth management firm to receive trustworthy advice in this “doggy-dog world.”
“What?” I asked my poodle. But she merely looked puzzled.
Clearly the ad’s writer didn’t know that the expression is it’s a dog eat dog world — one in which people prey on one another.
Recently a CNN political pundit pointed out that “Donald Trump has all these helicopters at his exposure.” His statement not only made no sense but also sounded vaguely disreputable. He might have meant that Trump had many helicopters “at his pleasure.”
The same man continued to trample on the English language by referring to Joe Biden as a “succeeder” to Barack Obama, when the word he wanted was “successor.”
Even more serious than simple mishearing is misunderstanding and, worse yet, the perpetuation of this misunderstanding. The most glaring example, in my experience, is the expression, “Stand and deliver.”
Back in the days when people traveled in coaches, “Stand and Deliver” was what highwaymen shouted at them to let them know they were about to be robbed. Think of it as a 19th century version of “Hands up.” In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens writes ironically that “the Lord Mayor of London was made to stand and deliver [italics mine] on Turnham Green by one highwayman who despoiled the illustrious creature in sight of all his retinue;….”
Yet in 1988, Warner Brothers co-produced an inspirational film about an innovative math teacher who stood and delivered by teaching calculus to potential high school drop-outs. And this film that is supposed to model excellence in education is entitled — yes, you guessed it! — Stand and Deliver.
So what can we say about the writers and producers of this film? Well, for one thing, they probably never read A Tale of Two Cities. And, for another, I think we can safely assume that they heard a ringing but didn’t know where the bell was — which just proves that I still can’t get away from those old Russians and their sayings.
Rosette Liberman, Ed.D. co-author The Cooper Hill Stylebook, a guide to writing and revision