“These were pure animal survival instinks.”

Do I have, at last, a student who does form mental pictures when she hears a word? —because surely the idea of “animal survival instinks” is vivid in the mind of someone who has been confronted by, or fears being confronted by, a cornered skunk.

The actress in the production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s play A Picasso (opening tomorrow night under my direction) was late to rehearsal one evening last week. She explained that her charming and generally nonconfrontational dog, Emma, had had a skunk encounter, necessitating emergency baths. Immediately an intense conversation ensued between my actress and my actor, whose own dogs have had their share of skunky set-tos: is a tomato-juice bath the best remedy, or does it merely mingle the smell of skunk with the tang of tomato? Are herbal treatments better? Where have skunk meetings taken place? Whose dogs are smarter/braver/more fastidious? …and of course on into dog stories. I have no dogs but do enjoy dog stories. AND I really like skunks.…Supreme effort of three wills was necessary to bring us back to rehearsal mode.

I happened on a skunk nest (nest? is there another word?) on my way to pick up a pizza one night. Mama and four kits, curled up together in a hollow beside the walkway, a bit under a small shrub. They were simply adorable. Luckily for me, I frequently sing or hum under my breath while walking. People may find me strange, but skunks hear me coming and so are never surprised by me. We gave each other a cautiously amiable look, and then I walked on to the pizza place (and returned by a different route: why tempt fate?). Clearly she felt no threat to the survival of her kits or herself, so she had no need of instinks with me. But if I had been a curious, bouncy dog, her survival instinks would surely have been deployed.

I like to think my student thought of skunks the first time she heard someone refer to “animal instincts” or “survival instincts,” and came up with an appropriate spelling, almost a poetic one. (My friend Philip would call that an “eggcorn,” I believe.)

There’s always the possibility that she was listening to a speaker who didn’t take care to pronounce all his consonants, or that she had never heard or seen the word “instincts,” and she simply assumed the term was spelled the way she thought she heard it—no mental pictures involved at all. That’s a sad thought.

It’s a chancy passage from the ear to the brain and back down out the mouth or typing fingers. If we don’t have enough signposts installed along the way, the word, and consequently the thought, can stumble off the path and wind up at a surprising place that never was the destination—but may seem to be. My student may have intended a simple behavioral observation, but where she wound up was a playground for me!

I have a dear friend who thinks those creepy shiny pincery-looking bugs, earwigs, are called Airwicks. None of my students says “all of a sudden”: they all think the expression is “all the sudden.” Being widely read and hanging around with people who speak with some care are the only defenses against making hundreds of such false assumptions and subsequent errors, living in worlds full of animals with instinks and bugs that are air-fresheners.

I guess if you have one, it would be nice to have the other….

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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

13 responses to ““These were pure animal survival instinks.”

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