I just keep smiling and nodding

Get ready for loud, bellicose voices blaring political platitudes as we plunge headlong into another national election year. Our communication skills will be put to the test as the quips, comments, and even the pauses of every office-seeker are relentlessly scrutinized for subtle nuances and subliminal messages. Did a candidate really make an outrageous implication, or did some sloppy reporter publish an erroneous inference?

For me, the task of analyzing campaign jargon is all the more difficult because I have a chronic tendency to misinterpret the wide range of vocal inflections that occur during normal conversation.

The other day my attention was caught by a fast-talking radio commercial that ended with this statement: "Check out our ad in the whiter yellow pages!" I'd never heard of the whiter yellow pages. Was it a new, hybrid phone book? In this case, it took only a few moments for me to realize the announcer had jammed together "white OR yellow pages."

More often the linguistic confusion goes unresolved for longer periods and is compounded by my reluctance to invoke the phrase, "Beg pardon, could you repeat that?"

Several years ago, I called another writer on the phone and asked about the protocol for my first publication party.

"It's pretty simple," she said. "You do a short reading, and then sit with your books. People will come up and sort of pay Amish to you." From her casual tone, I assumed "paying Amish" was a hip literary term that had slipped past me because I'm such a square.

After asking around and getting mostly blank stares, someone suggested (correctly) that my friend had actually said "pay homage." Homage is not a word that gets spoken aloud very often, and the silent H tripped me up.

One of my earliest audio gaffes was also the most enduring. As a kid, I enjoyed watching "The Rifleman" series on TV and was impressed that Johnny Crawford was on a first-name basis with his father, Chuck Conners. He kept saying things like, "Paul, are we going to town?" or "Paul, I think someone's in the barn." Not until years later, when I saw reruns of the show as a teenager, did it dawn on me that Johnny was actually saying "Pa."

"Didn't it seem odd to you," my wife once asked, "that he called his father Paul when the character's name was Lucas McCain?" Frankly, no, because I have always been a person who accepts the quirky behavior of other families without question or judgment (especially frontier families).

All candidates should be grateful I'm not a political reporter.

I think Jimmy Carter once said World War III will start accidentally when a president walking to his helicopter, confused by a shouted question from the press corps, shouts back a confused answer that gets misprinted and ends up provoking our enemies into launching their missiles immediately.

Actually, I'm not positive it was Mr. Carter who said that. I'm just telling you what I heard.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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