“He has a pension for fantasy.”

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?

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

82 responses to ““He has a pension for fantasy.”

  • Sarah Kuriakos

    Or he has a pension for fantasy, and another pension for painting the town red, and yet another pension for feeding his cat, etc., etc.

    • RAB

      Oh I do like this, Sarah! If only we could be rewarded for our many achievements!

      • sarahjesusnlily

        I agree! And if we were rewarded in this way for every achievement, we’d all retire happy, but also rich!. There would be no need for Social Security–and no worry that it would go bankrupt. I feel a Utopia coming on…

  • yearstricken

    I love these mishearings. My first thought was that fantasy writers like J. R. R. Tolkien might receive a pension for their work.

  • donofalltrades

    Ha, French class. Ecoutez et repeatez! Or something like that.

  • L. Palmer

    I like to keep my pensions separated for different literary genres: fantasy, mystery, romance, historical fiction, etc.

  • segmation

    I think you should reward him! Too Funny! Thanks for sharing.

  • Off Duty Mom

    Ugh. You should try reading 9th grade English essays. You might cry. Sometimes I do.

  • kokkieh

    The best example for this type of error, of course, is when little kids sing church hymns or the national anthem. They have a pension for inventing entertaining new lyrics.

    • RAB

      Have you looked up “mondegreen”? Somebody taught me that word after another such entry on my blog…You’re right about the hymns–I had some strange notions of what I was singing as a child.

      • kokkieh

        What a lovely word. Merriam-Webster gives this origin: ‘from the mishearing in a Scottish ballad of “laid him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen”’

    • Tanaista

      For my nephew it was the alphabet song. The wondered how a top student was missing a complete section of the alphabet on tests. Then the teacher stood by him during the song and heard “A lemon and a pea” sung loud and clear.
      Your writing is engaging and thought provoking.

  • TomBoy

    Great post! I laughed out loud several times, but will not abbreviate it in chat or text form here. I get a lot of crap for my word choice and vocabulary, and I have come to that I was raised by an English Teacher and I still continue to love to read and write. Reading this entry was time well spent. Thank you.

  • Michael (contemplativemoorings)

    Maybe they are really saying “penchant” but your ears are final-T abhorrent…ever think o’ that? 😉

  • jhosack87

    I enjoyed every bit of your writing. I cannot wait to follow your blog and read more of your entries. As I new professor I’m excited to compare notes!

  • themodernidiot

    love your word play here. it’s sometimes quite musical. good stuff. you asked who to blame, i’m sure you were just being silly, but i thought perhaps it might deserve a serious answer. here’s one, wth.

    is there blame to lay, or should we just make kids read early, and often? if one really needs to place blame, lay it at the doorstep of whoever was in charge of making books appealing to them when they were wee, but failed.

    my nephew has a hearing issue. he skated through school with it and dyslexia because no one bothered to notice that he mixed up his words. they just assumed he was stupid, and passed him though to keep their funding. my sister loved to read to her children, but cancer and a double-shift job took that precious time away. no one else offered him books as a child until i started reading with him in 3rd grade (that’s when I noticed his problem-the school system still passed him). by then he didn’t care enough about books to bother improving. he’d learned the tricks, that was enough.

    if they don’t see the words, they have to rely on the sounds, which is poor way to pass on language if you want it to be ‘correct.’ especially in today’s noisy, noisy environments. especially as they damage their hearing with loud music from headphones, cell speakers, TV, to car subs,

    but can we really blame them? we did it as kids too. our languages changed when we were kids too, but are transitioning now with incredible speed thanks to technology, piss poor editing and writing on the internet and in print, and the replacement of books with vids.

    but we can’t stop it. we can just preserve the words like we did our ancient scripts.

    everything else is TLDR

    • RAB

      Completely agree. The efforts to preserve what we have and build on it, rather than just letting everything go with a shrug, have to continue–have to be ramped up–otherwise more and more of our culture, our history, our philosophy, our wisdom will become inaccessible to all but the most intrepid footnote-readers.

      • themodernidiot

        I wonder though if this is supposed to happen as just a natural evolution of civilizations. I cannot imagine we would be immune to something that has befallen all those that came before us.

        I find myself torn mentally between being terrified of the change, but also comfortable with it because it is nothing new. It’s how my own language emerged.

        I think I’m just a snob, really 🙂

  • Jen

    I’m really glad — seriously — you shared the French pronounciation of pension. Because I’ve always read it like the retirement fund. I think it all comes down to “kids these days” not reading enough literature and/ or newspapers. I’m living in a foreign country, learning a new language, and I definitely learn better when I see a new word written rather than just hearing it.

    • RAB

      I agree. Even the most literate of us can come up with some pretty strange pronunciations based on spelling. I had a friend from Norway who referred to spiritual suffering as “A real Garden of Getts-a-main”! A fellow grad student frequently used the word “albeit” in his writing; one day during an oral presentation he kept saying “I’ll bite,” and I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about…until I looked at his paper later and saw another “albeit.”

  • lionaroundwriting

    I love the word penchant. It has a descriptive quality totally relative to what it actually means.

    As for punishing the student – come on! They aren’t French..

  • figtree23

    A college student with poor English skills? Who woulda thunk it?

  • villagerambler

    Well, at least they were close. Perhaps it was a minor case of Chinese whispers. To be honest I’ve always pronounced it in the French style – not sure if that makes me pretentious or not…
    There are so many words or expressions that people learn or hear incorrectly and go on to perpetuate. At the moment one of my pet peeves is the way many people now seem to say ‘preform’ or ‘preformance’ instead of perform/performance. I don’t know if this horrific mangling of the language has spread far, but it must be stamped out before it becomes the norm!
    Thanks for your post, so glad I found your blog 🙂

    • RAB

      Glad to hear from you. “Chinese whispers” is a term I haven’t heard before. Looking it up, I find it’s the game called “telephone” in the U.S. I like your term better.…
      I pronounce “penchant” in the French style too. Saying that’s “pretentious” is a way of getting there before the critics.
      The most astounding “heard spelling” I have ever encountered, I got from a student this semester. What would you suppose a “husman” is? It is, in his mind, that thing most people refer to as a “husband.” But it COULD be legitimized by symmetrical etymology: “housewife” comes from “hus” (house) and “wyf,” or “woman.” Why shouldn’t the term for the guy in the house come from “hus” and “mann” (“man,” or “person”)? It doesn’t; it comes, evidently, from house and master, or manager: “hus” plus “bonde.” Maybe my student has found a way to equalize the domestic power structure! My fear is, though, in view of the rest of his work, that he simply isn’t hearing the word correctly.

  • RAB

    He actually wrote “husman” in more than one paper, so I think it’s exactly what he thinks the word is. If you say “husband” out loud but kind of mumble, you can get the sound, all right.

  • Robert Hatfield

    This shows us that language has its own personality. Sometimes this personality does not mix well with the personality of the speaker and hopefully this person will have a good friend to tell them this. When a word has flare it most be handled by a professional or someone who can control its power. I refrain from such words as you may be able to tell from my simple post. Humor is my forty…fourtay….my thing. Of course, our language has been created from mispronunciations, but some where in time someone decided to try and preserve it.

    I have a new sense of seriousness to my abilities as a writer. When I began a few years ago I learned that commas where not used so the reader could pause to take a breath. Which I now know is ridiculous considering we know nobody reads out loud. I quit them altogether for awhile and slowly allowed myself to ration them out. I have “The usage of commas” on my Google speed dial.

    I have been kidding around here, but the truth is in there somewhere.
    I hope you catch my drift. You say tomato, I say “What?”

    • RAB

      Somewhere back there in the Middle Ages a person might have a nuncle. A couple of centuries later, his descendants would have an uncle. But I believe that was a general trend, not just one mis-hearing student. I’d hate to lose the word “penchant,” or have it fuse in our descendants’ minds with “pension”—losing the word can mean losing the ability to think the thought….
      p.s. I don’t teach that commas are pauses, for reader or writer: I teach that they’re signs that mimic, or indicate, vocal inflections. The speaking voice goes up and down, emphasizes and de-emphasizes, thereby shaping the music of thought and clarifying the relative importance of its components. It’s the difference between a descending major scale and “Joy To the World.”
      Thanks for your comment!

  • Loca Gringa

    Anything that provokes thought should be rewarded. I loved your article. I would love to have a “funtasy” pension. However, there’s never really enough left over for fun. lol

  • ladysoket

    I hear stuff like this all the time. Even though I know the difference between pension and penchant. I don’t like to think about pension. But penchant. Smiles. I have a penchant for writing.

  • Pure Fiction

    Hi there, interesting post and great blog. I think this is a good example of why cliches can be so bad in written text.

  • Theresa Hupp

    Reading your headline was like fingernails on a chalkboard. (A cliche, but apt.)

  • jamaal2x

    This is why I love language. Our words, our understandings, our minds and imaginations, can take us to so many places.

  • SandySays1

    From the small world category, you may wish to find a copy of Dr. Robert F Fulton Jr.’s book, “But … You Know what I mean.” The book is out of print currently but the ISBN# is 193084736X (sans prefix) It’s an excellent book written from an editor’s POV.

    • RAB

      Sounds interesting for summer reading—I’ll hunt it down. My title was taken from innumerable students. Me, with a sigh: “This sentence is unclear because you ____ [fill in blank with one of a million possible errors or problems].” Student, defensively: “But you knew what I meant.” Alas, yes. If I didn’t know what you meant, dear one, I wouldn’t know you didn’t say it.

  • suhaengja

    What a fun read! Your just-to-be-thorough, additional definition of pension as a hotel or boardinghouse in Europe enlightened me as to something I’ve always wondered about:

    Here in Korea, “pension” is used to describe something akin to a vacation cottage or vacation cabin rental. I thought it was borrowed from English, and I always wondered how it could have been derived. Now it’s all clear, although Korean “pension” follows the English pronunciation, not the French pronunciation that you describe.

    I guess words have very interesting lives! 🙂

    • RAB

      The Korean pronunciation must be via English, just as the English is a descendant of the French. I used to love to trace journeys on the map—either my family’s vacation travels, or famous journeys like Marco Polo’s, Lewis and Clarke’s, even the journeys of the allegorical characters in The Faerie Queene. But the journeys of words are even more curious, and more historically and culturally revealing. When I talk about vocabulary to my students, I describe the English as “true imperialists, grabbing raw materials and words wherever they landed.” I’m sure other cultures have equally revealing linguistic histories. Hope to see you again!

  • northernmalewhite

    “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?”



  • ordinarybutloud

    Oh reward!! Definitely reward! Because this post was tres amusant.

  • klagoosh

    Reblogged this on The Cutting Edge and commented:
    Love it! There are so many mistakes made with our English language, both in print and in speaking. How many times have you heard someone say, “council,” when they really mean, “console,” that thing you store stuff in, in the center of your car?

    • RAB

      That’s a new one for me. How many times have you heard people say “intricate” when they mean “integral”? …As in “that basic fact is an intricate part of the argument.”

    • Sadie Grace

      …if you are hearing “council” and you live in the south, it could just be the accent and not the wrong word 🙂

  • mwfinchwren

    So enjoyed reading this….I was hooked by the title alone!

    I have to share the funniest verbal faux pas I’ve heard recently. “For all intents and purposes” was replaced by “For all INTENSIVE purposes.” I still have a giggle over that one!

    • RAB

      It’s funny, all right…it’s also what my students (and I mean ALL my students) think the phrase is. Today’s chuckle is tomorrow’s gasp of despair! Thanks for your kind words.

      • mwfinchwren

        Oh, you must be joking! I thought this was a unique situation! Must be a difference in our frames of reference…the students I am around are elementary age so they don’t even think of “all intents and purposes.” I imagine you also see spelling degraded by texting!

        • RAB

          Many years ago I got “It’s a doggy dog world.” I thought, Good Grief!!!! A few years later everyone was writing it. Without reading, words fall victim to sloppy pronunciation and inattentive hearing. Funny, but I don’t see a lot of texting impact. My students say they don’t like the texting abbreviations, now that they can use a qwerty keyboard on their phones. I do get some pretty funny errors that seem to be the result of Autocorrect, though.

        • mwfinchwren

          Well, that certainly reinforces yet again the importance of getting those children reading early and often! I am and always have been a voracious reader; my husband has become one since marrying me and our child began reading words (yeay!) just before he had his 3rd birthday. (I was reading to that child when he was only a few months old.) He has been exposed to some good and some great literature and has always participated in our library’s summer reading program. I was so sad last year, though, because the interest really dried up (although he did complete the program) and most of his free reading time throughout the year was consumed with “Calvin and Hobbes.” Of course, I am, and always have been, deeply delighted with Calvin and his pet tiger but that is NOT enough! I did several online searches for good 6th grade reading material (excluding the usual suspects) and found a bonanza! A wonderful book about a young girl, a cat and American soldiers in the UK during WWII started the summer reading, and then he began a fantastic science fiction series. He is reaching for the books and logging his time with great gusto. And I’m a happy mom!

  • monty3038

    Hmm… a fantasy pension… is that all I have to look forward to in retirement? 🙂

  • RAB

    mwfinchwren: blessed boy! Reading opens so many doors—most important, the ones to the mind and the heart.

  • jadecasey

    Your dictionary is not wrong about penchant being a conjugated verb (participe présent du verbe pencher – so would have said your French teacher). However, penchant is also a noun in French and it is also used to express “a strong liking” for something, as it does in English. It also carries a few more meanings in French, depending on context.

    Every languages borrow from neighboring cultures and this “relationship” between English and French go back to Middle English (1100-1500 AD). Today, English and French share some words (raison d’être, quintessence, nuance – just to name a few), and that’s without taking into account a whole host of false cognates. I think such sharing is wonderful.

    • RAB

      I assume the dictionary is assuming the noun form derives from the verb. It’s just Webster’s; they tend to be terse.

      I remember the year l’Académie Française decided to try to hold the line against such sharings as le ballpoint–a lost cause. Where there is conversation there is sharing, especially if one language has named a thing the other language comes to later.

      I tell my students if they do jury duty they should listen close and they’ll hear some medieval French in the court terminology. The Normans didn’t want any important business conducted in English while they held sway there. That’s one reason we have a sense of a sudden change from Old English to Middle English—not much in writing during the transitional years to track the speech changes.

      Thanks for playing!

  • sarahjesusnlily

    Speaking of mishearing, my sister misheard the last line of the Pledge of Allegiance when she was in kindergarten, lo those many years ago. What was supposed to be, “…with liberty and justice for all.”, she heard as, “…with liberty and dresses for all.” I think I like her version better!

  • Sadie Grace

    As a former English teacher, I have a penchant for reading blogs such as this one. Thanks for the reminder that there is much humor in teaching.

  • jeanmcurio

    Ha, I’m so glad I stumbled across your blog. I recently wrote an entry on my own blog about this, but you were a bit more gracious and contemplative than I was. Recently I had a student write that she went “into a ranging furry” instead of a “raging fury” (which is what she meant, of course). Thanks for the fresh perspective.

    • RAB

      Perhaps her “ranging fury” had her dashing madly around the landscape? Oh, was it “furry”!?! Well, can’t possibly imagine what a ranging furry might be, but if she “went into” one, I’m not sure I WANT to imagine! Thanks for your comment!

  • Michael Eriksson

    A confusion between “pension” and “penchant” is not that remarkable to me. The many, many people who write “per say” instead of “per se” irk me more.

    (As, incidentally, does the artificial U.S. “y” in the pronunciation of words with an “ä” sound: Yes, the “e” in “se” is roughly equal to the “a” in “say”; no, there is no “y” after it. There is no “que-y sera” and no “ce-y la vie”; neither Monet nor Manet have a “y” in their names. “Ballet” may be forgiven, considering that it has been fully integrated in English for a long time and is not even perceived as an import by most people.)

    There are a few other misspellings that are so common as to compete with the correct spelling in popularity, even though the word is used relatively often, including “masterbation” (“e” for a “u”).

    Of course, when someone uses an unexpected combination of words, there is always some chance that it is done with joking intentions. Possibly, someone somewhere does have a pension for fantasy?

    • RAB

      I now have students who write “for say.” Obviously, once one can’t tell the difference between “se” and “say,” AND once one has studied neither Latin nor “Latin prefixes, suffixes, and roots,” “per say” makes no sense. Then, maybe the student thinks, the speaker must be saying “fer say,” which would be careless pronunciation of “for say.” And I imagine the student validates “for say” by connecting it to the currently popularized New York expression, “just sayin’.” Voilà. Meaning completely lost as the novice mind contemplates an expression in another language and doesn’t recognize that it’s in another language. Well, C’est la vie, Gracie! “Okay, George, I will. La Vee!”
      Thanks for the comment!

  • solberg73

    I pride myself in conducting vibrant comment-streams on posts, but here I’ve more than met my match. I had to remind myself what was the spark word here.
    All I can add from the hebrew side of the drink is that I use ‘no-tei’ (to lean) 7 times daily whenever describing a tendency. And love it, since it’s my personal tip of the hat to ‘penchant’. And this in a language which tries to spell ‘exhaust’ “EGZOZ’ The horror!’, as Brando mumbled in the film.

  • A.PROMPTreply

    Heavens, I’ve stumbled on your blog and learned so much just in a few minutes! I can’t wait to peruse the rest of your writings. Am glad to find another person with some of the same hangups as me! (I haven’t been through your whole blog yet but am wondering if you’ve written on my own personal pet peeve…..improper apostrophe usage!) Can’t wait to read more!

    • RAB

      Welcome! I haven’t been keeping up my blog as I should, but your comment may be just the inspiration I need to get back on task. No, I haven’t done much with apostrophes….but one never knows what the future will hold.

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