As I mentioned in a previous post, I have spent the past five days on a criminal-trial jury in D.C. superior court. In some cities, lawyers, journalists, and people involved in politics might be weeded out in the jury-selection process. The demographics of D.C. are such that most make their way through. It's actually quite hard to be excused from jury service here.
Deciding someone's fate in a criminal trial is horrible, and enlightening—or so I say based on my three such experiences over the years, all in D.C. At some point I may discuss the civic aspects of the experience. For the moment, with this case behind me, I mention just one linguistic point: that of the ass baton.
* * *
Through the examination and cross-exams in this case, attorneys for both sides were careful to make sure that even very familiar terms were spelled out to remove the last bit of ambiguity. "When you say the car was going at a 'high rate of speed,' what do you mean?" "Your report says you 'swabbed for DNA.' What are the steps in that process?" "You testified that only one of the car doors was open after the crash. How do you know that for sure?"
There was one exception, the term I kept hearing as "ass baton." At one crucial point in this case, a white (as it happened, and young and ostentatiously fit) police officer was chasing a black (as it happened, and older and heavier) suspect down a dark alley, on foot. The policeman soon tackled the defendant from behind. What happened next?
"I struck him with the ass baton, and then I secured his hands with flexi-cuffs, and ..." "And was the suspect injured by the ass baton?" "He did not appear to be, but since he would not say anything to us, as a routine precaution after use of the ass baton we called an ambulance..."
I learned afterwards that the other 11 members of the jury were all thinking roughly what I was: "Ass baton? Am I the only person who has never heard of this? I guess I can understand what it could mean, in context. You've got your hand cuffs, and your leg restraints. But really, an ass baton?" A jury isn't allowed to ask questions in court. And through deliberations over three days in the jury room, apparently none of us wanted to go first and say, Do all the rest of you know what an "ass baton" is?
When the trial was over and we'd delivered our verdict and the judge came in to thank us and ask if we had any questions, I finally got up my courage. "I'm really embarrassed to ask this, but what is an 'ass baton'?"
She burst out laughing. "Ass baton! That's what you were hearing!?! They were talking about ASP batons!"
The "ASP baton," as everyone in law enforcement apparently knows (but none of our jury, from a very wide range of backgrounds, did) is from a company originally known as Armament Systems and Procedures. It so dominates its category of lightweight, expandable batons that, much as tissue paper generically becomes "Kleenex" and any no-stick material becomes "Teflon," any telescoping device of this type is now called an "ASP baton."
Which my linguist-wife assures me is in real life said exactly like "ass baton." The two terms could be distinguished only if someone deliberately and artificially stopped between the words, to say "asssPuhh [pause] baton" when denoting the official term. "Since people talk in phonemes rather than words, they don't do that," she says, as my expert witness.
This phenomenon, familiar from "'scuze me while I kiss this guy!" [vs "while I kiss the sky"] from Purple Haze or "mairzy doats" [vs "mares eat oats"] from the nursery rhyme song, actually has a name. These are all Mondegreen errors, in which a mis-hearing (rather than mis-pronunciation) conveys an entirely different and in some cases more sensible meaning.
Take-home lesson for lawyers: next time the cops are on the stand, a followup question could be: "You say you struck the defendant with an assPuhh [pause] baton. What does that mean?"
Take-home lesson for life: the next time I'm too embarrassed to ask, "Am I the only one who doesn't know what's going on here," I should probably overcome the embarrassment and ask.
So, perhaps you have learned the term Mondegreen here. The odds are good that I will find occasion to use ass baton again.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.