From Poetry Magazine

A damp squid and an angelbeast: observations on poetry and mishearing

Damp squids have been much in the news lately. As a public service, I'm providing some links to information that might be of use to our readers, especially those who are somewhat familiar with British literature.  After all, as a blog post by Sushrut Munje explains:

Many phrases we use are often misquotes from Shakespeare and other traditional sayings – and people do not realise they have made mistakes.... [For example,] “one fell swoop” which was originally uttered by MacDuff in Shakespeare’s Macbeth but which is often mistakenly repeated as “one foul swoop”. [The Telegraph newspaper adds, "The misquote is so common it is now even used in the play itself."]  Another favourite from the Shakespearean years is “all that glisters is not gold” which we misquote as “all the glitters is not gold”. The misquote is so common it is now even used in the original source, Merchant of Venice itself... Technically these are called malapropisms. For a nation that produced Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Stephen Fry, it seems zé Brits aren’t as a literary as me thinks.

A recent survey of 1,000 people was compiled by the UK hearing aid retailer Amplifon as part of a "Bringing Sound to Life" campaign aimed at revealing the state of the nation's hearing. And the survey said... the top ten British misquotes are:

1.) A damp squid (a damp squib)

2.) On tender hooks (on tenter hooks)

3.) Nip it in the butt (nip it in the bud)

4.) Champing at the bit (chomping at the bit)

5.) A mute point (a moot point)

6.) One foul swoop (one fell swoop)

7.) All that glitters is not gold (all that glisters is not gold)

8.) Adverse to (averse to)

9.) Batting down the hatches (batten down the hatches)

10.) Find a penny pick it up (find a pin pick it up)

Mark Holmes of Amplifon says: "Technically these are called malapropisms but we think most people simply mishear them in the first place and repeat their mistake over and over again."

Sorta like the telephone game.


Well, about that glistering gold, we just published some new work in Poetry by Eduardo Corral, one of which, "To the Angelbeast," begins with the line:

All that glitters isn’t music.

Sound familiar?  So, in the accompanying Q&A, I asked him about it:

Your opening line “All that glitters isn’t music” will remind readers of the often-misquoted line “All that glisters is not gold” from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and perhaps similar lines in Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat” and Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” How does your poem take off from these, if indeed it does?  

His answer was surprising:

Though I know and love the lines mentioned in the question, the opening line doesn’t consciously gesture toward them. It’s actually something I misheard. I was sitting on a park bench, pretending to read, but in fact I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two elderly women. They were talking about feet blisters. They both had them and were swapping home remedies. One of them, in a southern drawl, said, “A dash of glitter is a must.” I heard: “All that glitters isn’t music.” I scribbled the line in my notebook, got up from the bench, walked away perplexed (glitter on a blister!) but pleased with my pilfering.

Huh. Poetry arises from creative mishearing, after all!

There's lots more to the poem than that, of course.   Admirers of Robert Hayden will not want to miss Eduardo's work and his interaction with it.

You can read his poems, and our Q&A with him here in our December 2011 issue.  And you can listen to Eduardo read and talk about his work - along with much more, including discussion of poems by Linda Kunhardt, Camille T. Dungy, and Stephen Yenser - on our December 2011 podcast.  I'll bet you're champing at the bit already!

Pictured: an actual damp squid.


Originally Published: December 2nd, 2011

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...