Recently, I was listening with my daughter to the song “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” by the Temptations, which was playing on the radio in the car. My husband and I value music in all its forms and like to share with our children, so when this classic hadn’t ended by the time we reached home, I turned off the car but left the radio on so we could listen until the ending of the song. Enjoying the syncopated clapping which accompanies the chorus toward the end, I was only half-listening to the familiar lyrics:
Papa was a rolling stone,
wherever he laid his hat was his home,
and when he died
all he left us was alone.
I had always enjoyed from a wordsmith’s perspective the linguistic twist at the end of the chorus, the substitution of material bequest (“all he left us”), which might be expected upon a death, with mere lack of presence (“alone”) rendering the death of a parent and its attendant emotional bereavement that much more difficult to bear. Having lost my father to a car accident when I was three, I could relate. But this time, listening to the last line, I suddenly heard “all he left us was a loan.” I laughed to myself and told my daughter what was so funny. Then something that is not so funny occurred to me. Such misapprehensions are becoming more and more commonplace as people do less and less reading and more and more passive listening, and then, as in the “telephone” game, familiar phrases can become garbled as original meanings are forgotten, or are never learned in the first place. For example, today I was solicited via email to sign my daughter up for a summer camp, and the notice said ‘Registration is “first-come, first-serve.”‘ This last phrase makes no literal sense as written. The correct phrase is shorthand for the concept that the one who shows up first is the first to be served, hence “first-come, first-served.” This is not the same evolution that results in a new word, for example, the French word for egg, “l’oeuf,” becoming “love” as used to keep score in Anglican tennis. It is a failure of effective communication. In this day and age of plummeting economic situations and dwindling hope for many, as the U.S. government sits in stalemate over sequestration, the interpretation that Papa died leaving his family not just alone, but in debt, is not only less poetic, but unfortunately is also not so unlikely.