There are words we learn from songs; they rise out of the music and appear in our ears. Sometimes they’re completely new words to us, words we have to figure out from context. Boogaloo in “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” was one such for me. Sometimes they’re words that are so reasonable in form we may not realize we haven’t heard them before. The Beatles were good for that for me: I easily accepted Blackburn, Lancashire in “A Day in the Life” even if I didn’t know its exact location, and hogshead in “For the Benefit of Mister Kite” even if I didn’t have an exact mental image of one.

And sometimes they’re not actually real words at all. There are no naspritus trees in Tripoli; no one is going, now or at any other time, into a Classiomatic. Welcome to the wide world of mondegreens, misheard words that lie in wait in lyrics and seize and drag away your mind as a leopard seizes and drags away a hare.

Music is an especially fertile field for mishearing because it interferes with our usual way of identifying sounds. We recognize vowels and consonants by the resonances they create in our mouths. Every sound that comes from our larynx has not just its base frequency (its pitch, in musical terms) but a number of harmonics above it (resonances that are some multiple of the base frequency), and the ones that come out the strongest are the ones that echo at just the right frequency for the size of the cavity they’re resonating in. Your tongue, as it constricts the air flow to make speech sounds, makes an angle that creates two resonating chambers, one at the back and one towards the lips, and the smaller each chamber is, the higher the resonances that dominate. The one towards the lips is also smaller than the one at the back, so you have two sets of resonances that can be variously closer together or farther apart, and their relation tells us what sound we’re hearing. There are some other, even higher sets of resonance that also come into play, but they mainly help us hear things like the difference between a vowel with a retroflex /r/ and one without it, or a vowel that’s nasalized (representing a following /m/, for instance) and one that’s not. They’re higher and not as strong. You can read and hear lots more about all that if you want.

Anyway, the thing is that singing can interfere with all that at least a little, and distract from it too, and the instruments accompanying the voice can add to the confusion. So I can listen to “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and think I’m hearing “Hit me with those lettuce and beans” when it’s actually “Hit me with those laser beams.” Why “lettuce and beans”? I dunno, man, I assumed it was some Cockney rhyming slang.

And that’s the thing: we do a lot of our language learning by abduction. I don’t mean by kidnapping; I mean by observing an instance (or what we take to be an instance) and inferring a rule on the basis of it. It’s the reverse of deduction, which is where we know the rule and work out the instance. It’s backfill: we make a decision and create assumptions to justify it.

Remember, too, that we don’t hear words as discreet items in our sound stream. We have to work out where the divides are. And we don’t always work them out right. That’s how a norange and a nadder became an orange and an adder, but that’s a whole nother thing.

But today I’m talking about a lepress. And Africa.

You know “Africa,” right? The ’80s hit by Toto? I’ve always liked that song, and I can sing you all the words. It has a few slightly overworked images, true, but the music is so nice. One line that has always seemed just a little pushed for me is “I know that I must do what’s right, sure as Kilimanjaro rises like a lepress above the Serengeti”:

Rises like a lepress? I guess that means it sits like a female leopard, soft, dappled, muscular, ready to take whatever it wants to have. I never spent too much time thinking about it.

If I had, I might have thought, “Wait, a lepress isn’t to a leopard as a lioness is to a lion. That’s not quite the right derivation. Leopard comes from leo, a root we all know refers to lions, and pard, which is from a Greek word for panthers. There’s no basis for deleting the last d. That should be leopardess.” Which in fact is true. A female leopard is a leopardess, if you insist on using diœcious terminology that treats the masculine as the default and the feminine as the marked.

But he’s clearly not singing leopardess. I mean, singers can mispronounce things – heck, Tom Cochrane sang Somalian as “soma-lion” in “White Hot” – but there sure ain’t no [d] in there. So what’s a lepress? Could it be formed from leporine? Isn’t that the adjective for leopards?

No, it’s not. It’s the adjective for hares. If lepress were formed from leporine, there would be a great big lady Bugs Bunny rising above the Serengeti. (Bugs Bunny may be called a rabbit but is obviously – by body shape, ear length, etc. – a hare. They’re not the same thing.)

Of course, following the model of seamster and seamstress, or mister and mistress, or matter and mattress, a lepress is a female leper. (OK, lay off, I was only joking about mattress.) And this is true: the dictionary entry for lepress – if your dictionary has one, as the Oxford English Dictionary does – tells you first that no one uses it anymore, and second that when they did it meant a female leper. As in a girl or woman affected with leprosy.

There is exactly no reason for a lepress to be rising above the Serengeti in that song.

I’ve been mishearing and misconstruing it for years. And by “for years,” I mean the whole time between when it came out in September 1982 and today, December 10, 2017. I only found out because I’m not the only one who was hearing lepress, and one of the others commented on Twitter about it: https://twitter.com/jamesfraleigh/status/939900206635773953

If you don’t feel like clicking, I’ll tell you: the real words are “sure as Kilimajaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.”

  1. That makes more sense than a lepress, doesn’t it?

Sure, but why would I think Olympus? I mean, it’s just, you know, a byword for a high, noble mountain. But not one in Africa per se, right? Look, we just heard “The wild dogs cry out in the night as they grow restless longing for some solitary company,” so my mind’s on animals. And leopards have a greater affinity in my mind to Kilimanjaro than some Greek mountain does. And it’s not like I see the word Oympus all the time. Well, OK, I literally carry a camera made by Olympus in my pocket every day, but, uh, I didn’t in 1982, or for years after.

It’s those higher resonances. I just wasn’t getting them right. I mean the resonances of the lofty idealized mountain of Greek gods, yeah, but also the ones that would have told me that I was hearing a nasalized vowel before the /p/ and not an /r/ after it. Remember how I mentioned that those higher resonances are more easily drowned out?

What was drowning them out? I dunno, man, the wild dogs crying out in the night, maybe? All I can say is that once something like that gets set into my head, it’s gonna take a lot to take me away from it.



On a snowy Saturday seventeen years ago, in a Scandinavian Modern A-frame church, I married the love of my life, Aina Arro. We’re celebrating that now with a long weekend out of town.

Seventeen may not seem like a significant number, not like 20 or 50 or whatever, but it seems to show up suspiciously often in my life – or at least I notice it in significant connections. My birthday isn’t on the 17th of its month, but my brother’s is, and so is my niece’s, and so is my sister-in-law’s, and so are the birthdays of some of my longstanding friends. And there are pairs of birthdays in my family that are separated by 17 days. I turned 17 when I was in my first year of university (and twice 17 – i.e., 34 – when I was in my first year of marriage). The longest I have ever worked anywhere is 17 years (and some months).

I could find significant things about other numbers, of course, but 17 cuts a figure. It has a presence in our culture too: it’s the last year before technical adulthood. It’s peak youth, epitomized by the magazine Seventeen. It shows up as such in quite a few songs and movies, too. You may think right away of the first words of “I Saw Her Standing There” by the Beatles: “Well, she was just seventeen.”

I think more directly of one of my favourite songs of all time, “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks. A great song with a driving beat, steaming with the angst of late adolescence.

Seventeen is a prime number, and it’s tempting to say that at 17 you’re in your prime. But you’re not. You’re only beginning to enter your prime; you’re at the edge of adulthood, commencing maturity, with a long way to go. Consider the poem “To Critics” by Walter Learned:

When I was seventeen I heard
From each censorious tongue,
“I’d not do that if I were you;
You see you’re rather young.”

Now that I number forty years,
I’m quite as often told
Of this or that I shouldn’t do
Because I’m quite too old.

O carping world! If there’s an age
Where youth and manhood keep
An equal poise, alas! I must
Have passed it in my sleep.

Perhaps that poised age is 34, when you’re old enough not to be treated like a kid but young enough still to be youthful (in the eyes of everyone but naïve youths). Seventeen more years, at 51, you’re undeniably mature – in years, at least. You should be in full flush of your career. At 68, you may have wound it down; at 85, you may be winding yourself down. Few people make it to 102.

Seventeen is an interesting number in other ways too. It’s made of the number of completion or top quality (10) and the “lucky” number (7). It’s the longest of the teen numbers to say and the longest to spell out, but arguably the easiest to write as a figure. Like eleven and twelve but unlike any other teen numbers, it uses only one vowel letter, e (though it uses it four times, like two sets of side-eyes). Note that all three – and all other numbers involving 7 – are also the only ones containing v. Like eleven it includes the word even, though of course neither of them is even. Like every number from seventy to seventy-nine, it includes the word event. Like all the teen numbers, you say and spell its two parts in reverse of how you write the figure (since the 1 is the teen because it’s stands for ten).

And the quirky, questioning letter Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet. So seventeen seems like a number for wanting to know more.

I must say I’m looking forward to getting to know Aina even more over the next seventeen years.

The linguistic bodhisattva

In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is someone who could attain pure enlightenment and transcend to Nirvana, but chooses instead to remain on earth to help other beings come closer to enlightenment. The idea of the bodhisattva is popular in most sects of Buddhism, and though I’m not a Buddhist, I’ve always liked it.

I make no claim to being anywhere near the kind of enlightenment that leads to Nirvana (it seems a fraught route, though I’ve heard with the lights out it’s less dangerous). But I do have a sort of parallel in my own life. Continue reading

excelsis (pronunciation tip)

I’ve made a video on the pronunciation of excelsis, which is always something of a hot topic during Advent. Here’s my deal: say and sing it however you want, but don’t sacrifice euphony just for phony phonology.


Fasten your fascinators and let us festinate to the feast and festival! Our finery will be infested with festivity and will foster neither fasting nor fustian fussiness. Oh, make haste! There is mickle shopping to do and so many people to party with. Molecules may be slowed by cold, but the advent of the cool dark (and the cool dark of Advent) causes the bodies on sidwalks and in malls to bounce and vibrate ever quicklier. Yes, festinate!

Not that festinate has an etymological relation to feast and festival. Those latter words are from a Latin root meaning just what they mean, while festinate comes from the Latin verb festinare, which means ‘make haste, go fast’ (as does festinate). But our word fast meaning both ‘speedy’ and ‘fixed in place’ (see also fasten) comes not from that but from a Germanic root. So does our word fast meaning ‘don’t eat’, but a different root. Fascinating, eh?

Well, whatever. I hardly need to hasten you to your innate festive inclination to get mixed up in it and taste fine and eat finest – and to hop to the shopping, so that you may give and get. Or, if you are observing Hanukkah, to have a fest in eight days. Or, if you hold to no holiday, just to hurry around so you can enjoy a little break, if you get to – because if you don’t, you’re sure to be festinating because of others’ festing. But in that case, may I suggest you follow the Italian advice and festina lente: make haste slowly.


“Come on baby, light my fire…”

Light? We associate flames with light, though often with fire the first sign is the scent when something is ignescent. Ignescent means igniting, bursting into flame (just as adolescent is bursting into adulthood and somnolescent is bursting – or at least sliding – into sleep). Whether engine or incense or cigarette, the ignition produces smoke, which conveys its fragrance (pleasing or pestiferous) before the eyes see the fire. Indeed, the smoke may well obscure the light.

We like, and light, flames for many different purposes. In earlier times the heat was paramount; Shakespeare’s Polonius in Hamlet spoke disparagingly of fires that give “more light than heat.” In our times, when central heating lets us take temperature for granted, we more often think of fire for the look of it – a pretty little candle or crackling fire – and we think poorly of a discussion that generates “more heat than light” because we think of heat as anger and light as understanding.

We still get much energy from fire, though – car engines, power plants, and that big burning ball above that we sometimes see during the day. And occasionally we still need a fire for heat, as Aina and I were reminded last night when visiting friends whose heating system was on the blink and who thus lit a fire. It did smell nice, and it gave a lovely light, but we didn’t need the light so much as the heat; the electricity was working fine.

Be it for lighting or heating or scenting, we are now starting an ignescent season. The days are shortest and the temperatures are dropping, and we’re lighting candles and other small fires for holiday observances and festivities. We want to spark a little spirit, though we don’t want to set the world – or anyone’s hair or house – on fire. Spend a cent to light a penny candle and sing, but don’t singe.


This is the tenth chapter of my month-long fiction, album, made of word pictures.

resolution. noun. From resolve, ultimately from Latin re– ‘back, again’ or ‘thoroughly’, plus solvere, ‘loosen, dissolve’. Thus its senses trace back to a return to original parts or state, or a breaking down into pieces or components, or an undoing. Senses are many, including conclusion of an issue, story, or problem; end of an illness; decision to bring something about; amount of detail available in an image (as for instance in lines or pixels per inch) or through an imaging device or lens; working through of a mathematical equation; and musical progression from discord to harmony.


The subject of a photo stands out most clearly if the background is blurry, but sometimes to make sense of the subject you need to know what’s in the background. And sometimes to make sense of a moment’s action you need to know the decisions that led to it. The phone is ringing for Jacob, but there are some details I think I should fill in first from the past few years, scenes that he was not present for.

Jacob’s son Carl is an engineer; I told you that. He studied engineering at Dalhousie University, in Halifax. He now works for a construction company based in Halifax.

Ellen moved to Haifax; I told you that. She works in human resources for a corporation there that has several subsidiaries in Atlantic Canada. She’s back in touch with Jacob now, but she doesn’t tell him everything about her life anymore. She no longer wants to have her life rendered in such exquisite detail for the aesthetic interest of others.

Clara lives in Charlottetown; I told you that. She’s an accountant; I told you that. In the back of one of Clara’s filing cabinets, in a brown envelope, are two copies each of two photos. One of each is pristine; the other has rips, crumpling, looks like it was torn off a wall, pulled out of someone else’s hands. You know what those photos are. Continue reading