28 MARCH 1995 I was in the pub the other night and the subject came up of things that sound the same as other things but are quite different. Hetero-something or other...
"Like when a man who has a lisp tries to say Moss Bros," said someone, "but it comes out as moth broth instead, and it might quite easily be mixed up with a soup made from moths."
"That's ridiculous," said someone else. "People don't make soup from moths, so the question doesn't arise."
"I've had soup made from moths," said the man next to me. "Often. It's the speciality of my London club."
He then named his London club, but the soup sounded so revolting that I had better not mention it for fear of libel.
"It works across frontiers, too," said the barman. "You get Australians who say libel when they mean label. Or the old thing about us thinking that a bison is an American buffalo and the Aussies thinking it's something you wash your hands in."
"I knew a bloke once who swore that when Americans try to imitate Cockney, it comes out pure Australian, which goes to show that Australian is just a mixture of ..."
"It doesn't show anything of the sort," said another. "If Americans spoke like Australians when they tried to speak like Cockneys, then how come in Mary Poppins Dick van Dyke didn't sound Australian, instead of the fake Cockney he did sound like?"
"Because he wasn't good enough even to sound like an Australian."
There was a reflective pause for laughter.
"I'll tell you a funny thing about America," said the man next to me. "I once saw a menu in California which had all the dishes in French, and then a phonetic transcription underneath so the Americans could order. And one of the dishes was transcribed as 'flaming yarn'."
"As what?" we said.
"Flaming yarn. Name of a well-known dish. Give up?"
We all gave up.
"Filet mignon isn't pronounced 'flaming yarn'!"
"It is in America. Think about it."
We thought about it. He was right.
"In the old days," said someone who could remember the old days, "there were jokes about people getting hymns wrong."
"Like people who were supposed to sing 'Willingly the cross I'd bear' but actually thought they were singing 'Willingly the cross-eyed bear'."
The way he said it they both sounded the same and nobody knew the original hymn, so laughter was perfunctory.
"I bet you don't get that sort of mix-up with modern songs," said the hymn-singer defensively.
"Yes you do," said a man who hadn't spoken before. "For years, I thought Elvis Presley was singing a song called 'Don't step on my Bruce Wayne shoes'."
The hymn-singer looked puzzled.
"Who's Bruce Wayne?"
"It's Batman's real name."
"What did Elvis really sing?"
"Don't step on my blue suede shoes."
The hymn-singer did not cease to look puzzled.
"The thing that sometimes gets me fooled on the radio," said someone else, "is that the word 'fallacies' sounds identical to the word 'phalluses'. If they say one and I hear it as the other, it leads to some very pretty misunderstandings. Mark you, the way the Tory party is going, fallacies and phalluses do get confused a lot."
We thought about this for a while, rather longer than it deserved.
"And the other day," said the same man, "I was puzzled by a reference on the radio to what sounded like 'reconditioned Reith Lectures'. I couldn't think what a reconditioned Reith Lecture was, or who would want one. You'll never guess what they were really talking about!"
"Yes, I will," I said. "Conditioned reflexes."
"Oh," he said, disappointed. I had broken the rules of the game. Never guess someone else's punchline. There was a longer silence, which was broken by a man who had been standing at the bar all this time without saying anything.
"I once thought I was going to make my fortune with this idea," he said. "I was going to create a TV quiz programme in which the answer was always a pair of like-sounding phrases or words. And the question was in the form of the definitions of the two different items. I thought of one terrific pair as an example. The trouble was, I could never think of another one."
"What was this terrific pair?"
"'Railway junction' and 'sea food'."
"There are two identical-sounding phrases meaning 'railway junction' and 'sea food'?"
"Yes. Crewe Station and crustacean."
We thought about that in reverent silence. The conversation could only go downhill from there.