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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Missionary Position

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Now on with the show...

One of the challenges of immigrants raising bilingual kids is coming up with entertaining ways to keep their mother tongue fresh. 

We encourage the kids to read, which gives their passive vocabulary (meaning words they recognize when they hear or read them) a work-out.  But we also encourage them to use their English so that their active vocabulary (those words that they can actually call upon when speaking or writing), has a chance to continue growing.

However, this often makes them self-conscious about accidentally mis-using a word or choosing the wrong word altogether.

I explain to them that we've all done it... y'know, been in a tough spot in a conversation, casting about for just the right word... only to find out the hard way that the word we came up with didn't mean what we thought it did. 


I told them to trust me that those malapropisms with which we shame ourselves in front of friends and colleagues are forever burned into our memories.  I explained that one of the best methods of enlarging one's vocabulary is known as 'making an ass of yourself'.

One of my favorite examples... in fact the one I used this weekend to teach my kids the definition of the word 'malapropism'...  is a story from my navy days:

I served on a couple of frigates during my enlistment.  A frigate (for those not in-the-know) has a relatively small crew of perhaps 200 - 225 men (these days there are women too!).  This may seem like a lot of people, but imagine being deployed for six months away from your home port and spending a lot of time bobbing around the trackless reaches of the world's oceans. 

Let's just say that you get to know your neighbors on such a small ship very well.

Our story centers around one of my shipmates in particular... a man we'll call 'Bruce' (because that was his name).  Bruce was a specimen of southern manhood who had somehow emerged from high school somewhere in Alabama completely innocent of nearly all aspects of book learnin', but who was an absolute genius on the topic of guns. 

If you were to generate a computer model of the overlapping readership demographics of 'Guns & Ammo', 'Soldier of Fortune' and Field & Stream' magazines, your printer would spit out a picture of Bruce.

As I said earlier, everyone pretty much knew everyone else in our little floating community... but there were various sub-groups that better defined the circles in which the crew socialized.

For example, the 'twidgets' (technicians who operated the electronic equipment and who maintained the ships various weapons and sensors) pretty much kept to themselves and were easily recognizable by their clean, crisp uniforms. 

The  'snipes' (engineering types who worked on the ship's boilers, generators, turbines and other greasy machines) also kept mostly to themselves and could be identified by their greasy jump-suits and nearly universal disdain for twidgets.

Now Bruce was a gunner's mate, so he nominally belonged to the twidget end of the social spectrum, but he was actually a bit of an 'untouchable' in the unwritten shipboard caste system.  This was because of his unabashed bigotry for the minorities who were strongly represented amongst the ship's snipes... and because, frankly, he scared the hell out of the twidgets.

I steered clear of Bruce whenever possible because of my suspicion that he felt about Jews pretty much the same as he did about the blacks and hispanics in the crew.

So you can imagine my surprise when, late one night, as I was climbing sleepily up through the darkened ship to take the 'mid-watch'  (the watch from midnight to 4:00AM), I ran into Bruce standing silently in the shadows at the end of a darkened passageway.  He was decked out in camouflage face paint and was wearing crossed bandoleers of shotgun shells... a .45 pistol on his belt... and a riot shot-gun held lovingly at 'port arms'.

I couldn't very well ignore him since I had to pass directly in front of him to reach Sonar Control... but I wasn't really keen on engaging him in chit-chat either.  He broke the ice by explaining that he had been "cleaning a few weapons" and that he was on his way to return them to the small arms locker.  Despite the fact that he hadn't seemed to be on his way to anywhere when I spotted him, I just smiled and nodded as if this was the most obvious thing in the world.

Then came the question.

Bruce put his hand on my shoulder as I tried to pass him and said, "Dave... I have some exciting news!"

I cringed.

He went on to say, "You know I'm getting out in a couple of months, right?   [I had no idea]  Well, I decided what I'm going to do when I get out."

I really had no interest in his post-military plans, but I was sort of trapped into responding by both his bulk blocking the passage... and by the conventions of good manners with which I was raised.  So I asked cheerily, "So, what are you planning ondoing when you get out?"

To my utter amazement he blurted out, "I'm gonna be a missionary!"

He might as well have been speaking Chinese because my sleepy brain refused to process this newly-offered information.  Bruce had never shown any interest in organized religion except to loudly voice is opinion that "Papists were ruining the country"... and to use the 'N' word and 'Baptist' pretty much interchangeably.

Then it dawned on me that Bruce might be using this ruse as a way to suss out my feelings on religion.  I was, after all, one of the few guys on the ship who wore an outward symbol of religiosity (my kipah).  So I decided to humor him and said, "That's great Bruce... but why a missionary?  I have to admit I never thought of you as the missionary type."

He quickly answered, "Well, for one thing missionaries get to travel a lot."

I thought about that for a moment and had to admit he was onto something.  I told him that for someone who had spent four years in the semi-nomadic life of a sailor, the travel opportunities as a missionary might hold some appeal.

He nodded vigorously... glad to see that I 'got it' and plowed on, "Yeah, that... and you also get to kill people!!!"

And just like that the sleep cleared from my brain and I understood with perfect clarity where Bruce's train had left the tracks.  I delicately asked, "Uh, Bruce... by any chance do you mean mercenary?"

His face lit up and he nodded vigorously, "Yeah, that's what I meant... mercenary!"

By this time I had managed to squeeze past him in the narrow passage, and as I fled towards Sonar Control I mumbled something about being late to relieve the watch and quickly put as much distance between myself and Bruce as possible.

I heard from someone that Bruce actually did go on to become a mercenary somewhere in Africa... but that's not really relevant to our story.  The tale of Bruce's malapropism offered a nice way to let the kids know that people - even grown-ups! - make mistakes with words all the time.  Sometimes it's embarrassing... and more often than not it's just plain funny.

But one thing is for sure... my children will never confuse 'missionary' and 'mercenary'.


Posted by David Bogner on December 10, 2006 | Permalink


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a man we'll call 'Bruce' (because that was his name).

I don't know why, but that line just makes me chuckle. Maybe I am overtired.

Posted by: Jack | Dec 10, 2006 6:44:05 PM


I don't want to even try and imagine what "mercenary position" could mean :-P

Posted by: Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) | Dec 10, 2006 7:13:44 PM

First of all, you told the story so well I could see every bit of it, including Bruce! Secondly, I'm having a laughing fit here. That was great. I'm going to tell this to MY kids (especially my ten year old who loves army/weaponry/glory of the fight stuff). Great way to explain the word confusion to your kids.

Posted by: Tracey | Dec 10, 2006 7:25:48 PM

Did you check the meaning of "missionary position" before using that as a title?

Posted by: Kite | Dec 10, 2006 9:04:38 PM

A STG on a Knox-class FF?

We had a radioman on one of my boats (SSBN) that was like ol' Bruce in the mercenary department. This guy had posters of weapons around the inside of his rack, camo sheets and a 'Rambear,' a Teddy bear dressed up as Rambo. He also had a large assortment of weaponry at home. The thing was, since submarine RMs fix their own gear, he *was* a twidget, although not an ET.

Posted by: K Newman | Dec 10, 2006 10:11:41 PM

Jack... I really wasn't trying to be funny there. I started to change his name... but then said the hell with it and write his real name.

Steg... That was actually the working title of this post... until ADD boy over here figured out that it would sort of give away the ending of the story. Doh!

Tracey... My work here is done. :-)

K Newman... Yup, and STG2, to be specific. Tell me... was the food on boomers as good as everyone said it was? I have to know. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Dec 10, 2006 10:19:31 PM

Should we be worried that the military has people like Bruce? It sounds slightly alarming to me that America is turning uneducated, racist gun nuts into mercenaries.

Posted by: Fern | Dec 10, 2006 10:45:59 PM

Having spent my high school years in Israel, I kept up with my English through reading. I learned all the 'big words' and how to use them correctly but... I had no idea how to pronounce them. My first few years years back in the States I would find myself in middle of a sentence about to use a word and just stop. If I was with good friends, I would actually spell the word and ask them how to pronounce it. (I was still doing that when I met Alan.)

Posted by: Chedva | Dec 10, 2006 11:53:46 PM

I would assume that the Mercenary position is one that you pay for....

You've reminded me of the comic who says that he doesn't talk about politics or sex because he gets them confused. When asked about the Middle East position he responded that he "kinda liked it, but it hurt the wife's back..."


Posted by: gilly | Dec 10, 2006 11:59:14 PM

Oh, thanks for the chuckle -that's a great story.
In Israel, I would mix up my hebrew words and always seem to interchange I'm excellent for I'm sorry, or shit for cold.

But I think you have figured out that I have a weakness for using malapropisms in my English as well. You have call me out on them a few times in your comments. Thank goodness noone can see me turning red.

Posted by: jaime | Dec 11, 2006 12:46:49 AM

Great post. He'd make a scary mercenary.

Posted by: Tim | Dec 11, 2006 1:30:09 AM

I will shamelessly steal that story.

And it explains nicely why one should be ambivalent about missionaries.

Posted by: The Back of the Hill | Dec 11, 2006 3:16:42 AM

I have a colleague who's famous for his malapropisms. My favorite is his reference to the legendary monster Sasquatch (i.e., Bigfoot) as Saskatchewan.

Fern, please don't assign blame for ignorant goofballs to the military. I suspect there was good reason Bruce was leaving the U.S. Navy. As a former infantry officer, I can tell you from personal experience, such nuts are nothing but trouble.

Posted by: Bob | Dec 11, 2006 4:09:59 AM

In my business--pediatrician-- parents make verbal errors all the time, but I'm never allowed to laugh. Some are very funny, but the challenge is never to let on. Like saying their child had an excretion instead of an exacerbation. Or deciding to use a scatological phrase for a routine body function. I think it was pretty brave to correct a man cleaning his weapons. Kudos.

Posted by: Jersey Boy | Dec 11, 2006 6:49:01 AM

Soy embarrasado!

( warning: do *not* use this phrase to express embarrassment in Mexico )

Posted by: Wrymouth | Dec 11, 2006 8:18:33 AM



I was on two SSNs and a SSBN. The food on all three varied, depending on who the duty cook was that day. Some was excellent and some was fit for a King....

"Here King! Here boy!" *whistle* "Come and get it, King! Gooood boy!"



Posted by: K Newman | Dec 11, 2006 8:29:32 AM

Fern... better than turning them into Republicans! [Kidding!!! sorry, I couldn't resist]

Chedva... Well, after having spent time with you I can say with some authority that your vocabulary (and pronunciation) is just fine. :-)

Gilly... Actually, by logic it would be one you GOT paid for. :-)

Jaime... No hard feelings, right? :-)

Tim... Actually, I doubt he'd survive long since he was dumber than a bag of hammers. But he sure did like guns.

The Back of the Hill... That's why I shared it. :-)

Bob... Everyone does it some time or other (that was sort of my point to the kids). The fact is that unless we make the mistakes we will never use the new words.

Jersey Boy... Laymen (and women) trying to use med-speak has to be chock full of such mistakes. You could write a whole post about such fun! [hint hint]

Wrymouth... I'll try to avoid that one. Thanks for the heads up. :-)

K Newman... Yup, the CX version. I can still here the distinctive triple-toned active mode. My specialty was the passive stuff though. Active sonar is only for creating a snap fire-control solution before putting a fish in the water against on guys like you! :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Dec 11, 2006 8:47:09 AM


Surface active is for us to get quick ping steal ranges before we send a MK48 back at ya.


Posted by: K Newman | Dec 11, 2006 9:10:45 PM

K Newman... Wire guided torpedoes are for sissies. Creating an elegant fire control solution for an active/passive MK 46... not that takes talent!

Posted by: treppenwitz | Dec 11, 2006 9:31:33 PM

MK46!? Oh, you have GOT to be kidding me....let me show you what a REAL torpedo can do!



Haze gray hotel for fish! :-p

The nice thing about wire-guided weapons is that it makes things quicker. Time spent in the Fire Control Tracking Party is time *not* spent in the rack. :-)

Posted by: K Newman | Dec 11, 2006 10:35:13 PM

My favorite Hebrew malapropism happened to a friend...late to an appointment she stuttered, "I'm sorry I'm ugly." Fortunately, her sabra friend has a sense of humor and after he picked himself up off the floor, he assured her she wasn't ugly and in Israel no one apologizes for being late.

Posted by: aliyah06 | Dec 12, 2006 7:47:46 PM

Oh my gosh, I just got this image of a missionary out on a hunt... LOL!

Posted by: Irina | Dec 13, 2006 7:14:17 AM

"where bruce's train left the tracks"

i love that! it's great... can i use it?

Posted by: nikki | Dec 13, 2006 9:33:25 AM

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