A: John's eyes are black.

B: John's pupils are black.

C: John's students are black.

When information gets passed from one person to another, its meaning may be altered. Is there a word for this situation? It might be used in the following sentence:

Misunderstanding arose because of .......

Phrases and non-nouns are also welcome.

  • 1
    It will be quickest to direct you to <english.stackexchange.com/questions/62855/…> There is only one answer but some of the suggestions may be useful.
    – Hugh
    Commented Dec 21, 2015 at 3:13
  • 1
    Minor nitpick: all pupils are black. It is irises which have different colors. Commented Dec 21, 2015 at 6:59
  • I would call the changes "transcription errors".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 22, 2015 at 1:15

8 Answers 8


There is no disagreement between

A: John's eyes are black.
B: John's pupils are black.

Neither is there any contradiction between

C: John's students are black
B: John's pupils are black.

But in the sequence, A: B: C: the phrase

B: John's pupils are black.

changes its meaning, an example of total lexical ambiguity, in this case created by two words,
1 the homonym "pupils," schoolchildren (from puer +diminutive suffix) and "pupils" the centre of the eyes by metonymy fom the previous meaning here used for eyes by synecdoche,
2, the polysemous word "black".

The Cause of the Ambiguity is recategorisation or recontextualisation of phrase B:. The listener has made a category error.

This Process of Misunderstanding comes under the heading of pragmatics.

The Circumstance leading to the misunderstanding is universal lexical ambiguity.


Whenever information is moving between a sender and a receiver, any change in the message is considered a

transmission error


I'd refer to this as a "game of telephone," after the children's game where you gather around in a circle and whisper a message to the person next to you until you get to the end and compare the initial and final messages (which of course end up rather different with enough people).

This game is also sometimes called "Chinese whispers" by British speakers, but that name might be offensive to some people. Wikipedia has more information about the game if you aren't familiar with it.

  • 2
    +1 for what I expect to be the most widely understood answer. This is definitely the most common name for the phenomenon that I'm familiar with.
    – DCShannon
    Commented Dec 21, 2015 at 17:01
  • I, too, upvoted this answer, although I'd probably opt use the slightly shorter phrase "telephone game," i.e.: A misunderstanding arose because of a telephone game.
    – J.R.
    Commented Dec 21, 2015 at 21:48

"... because of garbling." Or "... because the transmission was garbled."

garble -

  • to so alter or distort as to create a wrong impression or change the meaning
  • to introduce textual error into (a message) by inaccurate encipherment, transmission, or decipherment

If you permit replacing information with data, then not limited to transmission, but generally it is data corruption. Per Wikipedia:

Data corruption refers to errors in computer data that occur during writing, reading, storage, transmission, our processing, which introduce unintended changes to the original data.

You might also consider using the opposite term: information/data integrity loss.


For information it would be distortion, as defined here:

The tendency of information communicated within and between individuals and organizations to be altered, omitted, or re-organized as it is communicated.

For distortions in human communication you might also describe the situation figuratively by likening it to the children's game Chinese whispers.

  • @Rathony But are there any guidelines that "we need to check" answers in low quality queue "if the answer is a duplicate?" Duplicate answers shall be closed (for example according to meta.stackexchange.com/questions/10841/…). It's not that "looks OK" prevents closing, these are two different queues.
    – macraf
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 13:32

Consider, grapevine source

grapevine: the informal transmission of information, gossip, or rumor from person to person

hear something on/through the grapevine: to hear news from someone who heard that news from someone else Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms


In the case of mistaking pupil, the anatomical feature, for pupil, meaning student, the problem is perhaps more one of misunderstanding than communication. So I might say

Confusion arose because of a misunderstanding.

Transmission error, distortion, and data corruption are fine for telecommunications equipment but not for communication between people. (Between people, distortion indicates an intent to deceive or slant information.)

Another possibility is a miscommunication as in

Misunderstanding arose because of a miscommunication.

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