"It oft falls out - we speak not what we mean."
- William Shakespeare
Double-entendre, a word or phrase with two or more meanings, usually refers to something the naive will take one way, and the worldly-wise another. Who hasn't suffered the embarrassment of using just such a word in total innocence, only to discover by the reaction of those around you that you had earned a mouthful of soap to go along with your foot?
But even when there's no shadiness involved you can still feel like a grade-school drop-out by using a word you thought meant one thing when the person you are addressing has a different meaning in mind.
Children are wonderful on this subject and, because their faux pas are completely innocent, suffer no shame in the process. My toddler son once asked me for some "easy bread" - the opposite of hard, of course - and my young grandson once told our waitress he wanted "hot soda" to drink. "Without ice," I explained to the baffled girl.
When I heard my teenage sons talking about buying a "Yamaha," I thought they were going to surprise me with a new piano. They were surprised when I started naming colors and suggesting "baby grand." They didn't know Yamaha made pianos; I didn't know the name was more often associated with motorcycles.
Shortly after we moved to Georgia, that same biking, easy-bread son got his piano/organ-playing mother in hot water with his answer to a telephone caller's question, "Does your mother have a regular organ job on Sunday?"
"No," he replied. "She just plays around."
And how about all those confusing acronyms and initials? To some, a CD is a Certificate of Deposit, to others a compact disk recording. Likewise, to the military mind an APC might be an Armored Personnel Carrier, but to the spouse with a headache it's an aspirin compound. Academically speaking, an MB is the Latin abbreviation for a Bachelor's degree in either music or medicine, while neither profession has any connection to an MBA: a purely English acronym for a Master's degree in Business Administration.
A geographic example, perhaps, but when my New England college classmate wrote a story called, "Swing and Sway on the MTA," I had no idea he meant Boston's bumpy subway provided by the "Massachusetts Transit Authority," and not the anything but swinging organization to which my mother devoted half her life: the Maine Teachers' Association. Life in our home revolved excitedly around her MTA conventions and leadership roles, and I was totally immersed in that acronym.
I must also tell you how thankful I was for the neighbor who suggested my pastor-husband and I choose a different middle name for our second child.
"Did you check his initials?" the concerned lady asked quietly, which is why Andrew Stephen Seaborn quickly became the equally Biblical and less embarrassing Andrew Mark.
Speaking of initials, nearly every possible letter combination can stand for a number of different things. AL could be the abbreviation for American Legion or American League, the symbol for aluminum or the zip code for Alabama. Likewise, SA might stand for South America, South Africa or the Salvation Army. Consult a dictionary of abbreviations and you're likely to find dozens of opportunities to confuse someone whose life experiences are different from your own.
The moral to this entirely unnecessary story is this: I can understand the need for ten-digit-dialing and periodic new area codes. We obviously are running out of seven-digit numbers. But considering the similar problem we seem to be having with letters, does this mean our next step is a 50-letter alphabet?
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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