Monica Lewinsky and other amusing aural confusions

What do you call a person who stands around in bandages for a simulated air disaster?

IT'S TIME to drag Dr Wordsmith out of the pub and into the office again to answer some of your fascinating questions about the English language's use today. All yours, doc!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I am fascinated by the way you can get two words or phrases which sound identical but which are written quite differently, thus obscuring their similarity. The other day I overheard someone talking about an American whose name, as far as I could gather, was "Monocle Uwinsky". I had never heard of "Monocle Uwinsky" but he seemed to be very famous. Suddenly I realised that they were talking about Monica Lewinsky! These two names look rather different on paper but are pronounced entirely the same!

Dr Wordsmith writes: How very, very fascinating. And what is your question?

Well, I wondered if there were any words which described the process of hearing one word and seeing quite a different one in your mind's eye?

Dr Wordsmith writes: If there is, I have never come across it. And the next !

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I would like to agree with the last letter. Recently I was listening to someone disparaging 20th-century English music, saying that only Elgar had written anything worth keeping, and pouring scorn on the whole Delius myth. Well, of course, I didn't hear that as the "Delius myth" - I heard it as "Delia Smith" - so for a few minutes we had a very comical misunderstanding !

Dr Wordsmith writes: Highly droll. Do you have a question ?


Dr Wordsmith writes: Then for heaven's sake, make way for someone who has !

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I was recently at a small provincial airport where they were having an emergency rehearsal of what to do in the event of an air disaster. There were lots of people round the place covered in bandages with pretend blood seeping through, and some on crutches. When we passed through, they were taking a break, so we had the strange sight of all these terrible casualties standing around with cups of tea, chatting casually and some even smoking.

Dr Wordsmith writes: I see. And do you have a question?

Yes. One of my children asked me if they were dying people, and I wanted to say: "No, they're not casualties, they're just...", but I couldn't think what to say next without being long-winded. Is there in fact an accepted word for people who stand around in airports looking terribly wounded in order to help a simulated air disaster?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I can think of several, but I am not sure that any of them would be very useful. Next!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, I can vouch for the experience of the first two letter- writers. At the time of the recent avalanche disaster in Chamonix, I kept hearing the name Chamonix as "Germany". From there it was but a short step to thinking of the song from the Mel Brooks film The Producers not as "Springtime for Hitler and Germany" but "Springtime for Hitler and Chamonix"!

Dr Wordsmith writes: If anyone else writes in with an apparently amusing aural confusion, I shall be severely tempted to garrotte them. Does anyone have an intelligent question before the siren call of the saloon bar lures me back to more intellectual surroundings?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes, I have a very intelligent question for you. When people lose their sight, they are called "blind". When they lose their hearing, they are called "deaf", and when they lose their speaking ability they are called "dumb". But if they lose their sense of smell, there is no adjective to describe it. Why not? Why is this sense discriminated against?

Dr Wordsmith writes: That is a very insightful and poignant question. I wish you had not asked it, because I do not know the answer. Has anyone got a really dumb, easy question?

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Yes, I have noticed recently a change in the way people use quotation marks. They have begun to use them, quite wrongly to emphasise things. So you will see greengrocers shops with notices like "ORANGES `ONLY' 5P EACH!". Can you tell me what it is called when punctuation changes its usage like this?

Dr Wordsmith writes: I am a word man and have no interest at all in punctuation. If that is the best you can do, I am going back to licensed premises, where men are men, women are women and Tom Collins is a fancy drink with bits of salad floating in it! Ciao, baby...

Dr Wordsmith will be back again soon, if and when sobriety overtakes him. Keep those queries rolling in!

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