From the NYT‘s “Metropolitan Diary” of July 4:


Even though I wear a hearing aid, I live in a somewhat skewed world because of my poor hearing.

On the morning after Osama bin Laden was killed, I woke up in my daughter’s Upper West Side apartment during a pre-Mother’s Day visit. I turned on the radio in the middle of a news announcement.

What I heard was, “A group of highly trained baby seals were brought in by helicopter. They entered the compound and killed Bin Laden.”

Lynn Johnson

So: Navy Seals heard as baby seals.

Navy and baby are phonologically similar; /v/ and /b/ are especially close, and /n/ and /b/ are a bit more distant (the nasal closest is /b/ is /m/, as in maybe; the stop closest to /n/ is /d/, as in Davy), but still not far away from each other.

In addition, expectation plays a big role in mishearing. It’s likely that Lynn Johnson was more acquainted with baby seals (found in popular images and nature programs) than with Navy Seals. (Other people — those in the military, for instance, or enthusiasts of action movies — would have different experiences and different expectations.) Biases towards certain interpretations can also be set up by the immediate context (as in the mishearing I reported on here) rather than longer-range expectations, but such effects can be excluded in Johnson’s case, because the material came to her out of the blue, in a radio news report.

Johnson’s hearing problems are a further contribution, though people with no hearing deficits mishear things all the time, especially in noisy situations, when they aren’t fully attentive, and when the acoustic signal is somewhat distorted (as in singing — hence mondegreens).

My man Jacques was deaf in one ear for some years, relying on clever hearing aids that nevertheless picked up a lot of noise, and then the hearing in his other ear declined disastrously, so that as time went on, he lived in a swirl of mishearings, colored deeply by his expectations. Eventually, watching television shows brought him stories utterly different from the ones the rest of us saw, and those closest to him (his brother and sister-in-law, my daughter Elizabeth, and me) came to treat conversations with him as a kind of verbal tennis: one of us would say something, he’d lob something unexpected back at us, we did our best to return the shot, and so on. You had to stop hoping for ordinary conversation and just go with things, enjoy the Ionesco scene.

2 Responses to “Mishearing”

  1. Arne Adolfsen Says:

    One of the English language wire services noted that Pope John Paul I had been reading “Imitation of Life” when he died. The correction (“Imitation of Christ”) was released a couple of hours later when more details were available. I can only imagine that someone along the way misheard what was being said.

  2. Annals of mishearing « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Mishearing (link): Navy Seals heard as baby […]

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