Saturday, October 18, 2008

A little language laughter

Because this is Sunday, I’m reminded of some of the church humor that’s been circulated widely lately, all of it supposedly (key word, that one) derived from real church bulletins and all funny because of language. You may have heard or read many of these, but maybe not. For instance, “The peacemaking meeting scheduled for today has been canceled due to a conflict”; “The Fasting and Prayer Conference includes meals”; and “Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our community.”

The beauty of these is their reflection of exactly the kind of language errors we make daily. (Reader and university professor Chris says that his students would likely write “the beauty is there reflection” or “the beauty is they’re reflection.”) For instance, sometimes we forget to pay attention to the placement of the components of a sentence and to the fact that the placement really matters: “For those of you who have children and don't know it, we have a nursery downstairs,” or “Eight new choir robes are currently needed due to the addition of several new members and to the deterioration of some older ones.”

Look at this one: “Please place your donation in the envelope along with the deceased person you want remembered.” You know what? That example epitomizes the raison d’ĂȘtre of this column. My hope is that once in awhile — not always maybe but at least occasionally — this column will serve to encourage you to listen to what you’re saying, read what you’ve written, simply pay attention to how it might be misunderstood. And then, if you’re so moved, make a change (e.g., Please place your donation in the envelope along with the name of the deceased person you want remembered).

I mean for heaven’s sake (couldn’t resist that), think about what you’re saying: “The Youth Group will present Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ in the church basement Friday at 7 p.m. The congregation is invited to attend this tragedy.” Or even worse: “Weight Watchers will meet at 7 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church. Please use the large double door at the side entrance.” And then we have this, um, less tasteful one: “A bean supper will be held on Tuesday evening in the church hall. Music will follow.”

Before we leave the church and turn to medicine for some more examples, let me issue the important disclaimer that none of the above came from the bulletin of my church (relax, Rev. Alex) … and none of the following came from any of the doctors I’ve known. Well, they might have, but I didn’t discover them. All of today’s lil’ smiles came from lists that arrived from friends and family via email. All of these supposedly actual mistakes have been around for a long time, and therefore I’ve received them … let’s just say multiple times. I hope some are new to you.

Remembering the advice of Mary Poppins about sugar and medicine, we turn now to sweet errors from doctors and hospitals. Again, their humor depends somewhat on accepting that they are real, and, as above, I’m sending them your way because they remind us to pay attention to how our words might be misunderstood. For instance, “On the second day the knee was better and on the third day it disappeared.” Ouch! “She is numb from her toes down.” Say what?

Sometimes we come close to using the right word, but our choice is either slightly off or we type it wrong: “While in ER, she was examined, X-rated and sent home.” “I saw your patient today, who is still under our car for physical therapy.” “The lab test indicated abnormal lover function.”

Often, however, we know what we want but we simply fail to give sufficient detail to make it clear: “The skin was moist and dry.” I’m sure there’s an explanation for that, but it isn’t revealed in that sentence. Actually, the description reminds me of a radio voiceover I did once where the audio engineer gave me this direction for reading a particular line: “I want to hear an excited nonchalance.” It’s now decades later and I still remember it, that’s how puzzling it was.

We’ll end today’s language potpourri with a final church note. Please remember that I am not inventing these; they are allegedly from printed church bulletins. Ready? “The sermon this morning: ‘Jesus Walks on the Water.’ The sermon tonight: ‘Searching for Jesus.’”