A simple hearing error.
How often anymore does the typical student encounter the word penchant? Still, somebody she heard had encountered it…or that person had heard it from someone who had encountered it…all the way down into the Quaker Oatmeal box, at some point in which sequence there was a person who actually knew the word was penchant. Whoever heard that person, though, didn’t know the word, and in came “pension.”
How strange it is that college undergraduates would be more likely to know the word “pension” than “penchant.” Are they thinking about retirement before they even enter the ranks of the employed? It’s possible to receive a pension without retiring, as Webster’s first and second variants on definition #1 show: “a fixed sum paid regularly to a person; a gratuity granted (as by a government) as a favor or reward.” But there’s our common understanding, in definition 1c: “a sum paid under given conditions to a person following his retirement from service or to his surviving dependents”—the latter should the employee die in harness, presumably.
[Just to be thorough: Webster’s definition #2 is “hotel or boardinghouse in Europe.” That one derives from the French pension, or boardinghouse, pronounced more like pon(g)-syON(g). But that word has nothing to do with what my student was trying to write.]
Back to definition #1. There’s something staid and settled about “pension.” PEN-shn. Even though a young person could receive a pension, the word would age him, I think.
“Penchant,” on the other hand, has that French je ne sais quoi about it. In real French it’s a form of the verb pencher, to lean, says Webster; in English it means “a strong leaning,” a liking. The definition isn’t terribly interesting, but the word itself…yes, there’s something. Even though the pronunciation isn’t anything special—PEN-chnt—the spelling is so nice. And in affected moments one can always give it a bigger French spin: “Yes, I do have a pon(g)-SHAN(G) for being pretentious!”
Can whoever committed the first mishearing of the word be blamed for confusing PEN-shn and PEN-chnt? Well, my high school French teacher would never have put up with sloppy hearing: his dictées were grueling, and corrected with precision. He would have expected my student (or whoever it was who got “penchant” wrong) to have listened more discerningly, no less in English than in French.
If we don’t blame the hearer, perhaps we should blame the speaker. His fault was plainly speaking good ol’ English. If he had but been a little more pretentious, he might have said the word so that my student heard something closer to the intended term—or, of course, accused the speaker of using “hard words.”
But all of this ignores the true delight of the error. The idea behind this blog has been not only to try to understand the intellectual activity behind the student’s mistake, but also to show the kinds of distracting notions that interpose themselves between the writer’s intention and the reader’s comprehension. In this economic climate, at least for a writing instructor laboring in the hardscrabble vineyards of part-timer-dom, my student’s sentence achieves a poignancy, a poetry, that transports one into a world of revealing truths.
Yes, I have a fantasy pension. Or, receiving a pension from my current employers when I dodder off into the sunset is a fantasy. Or, my only pension after all these years is my finely honed gift for fantasy. I have fantasy for a pension.
Should I punish this student for taking me down this distracting lane, or reward him for giving me a new way of summarizing my life?