Worst pun of all time?

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Bill Benzon writes that "This video embodies a pun so wonderfully awful that it deserves mention on the Log."



61 Comments

  1. Janice Huth Byer said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:00 pm

    Worst pun ever broadcast! Or is a pun better for being worse? It verges on unforgettably bad, no small feat for what many regard as the lowest of humor formats.

  2. Lazar said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:34 pm

    Do intentionally garbled lyrics count, strictly speaking, as puns?

  3. Ray Girvan said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

    It didn't grab me. Is is strictly a pun? I'm not sure if there's a solid definition, but I tend to think puns need strongly apposite meanings in both their senses (like the "lesser of two weevils" one in Master and Commander) not just something something relatively meaningless constructed as a soundalike.

  4. rootlesscosmo said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:45 pm

    Do intentionally garbled lyrics count, strictly speaking, as puns?

    We may need a new term. It isn't a mondegreen. Is it a mondericedavies?

  5. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

    Well, it would certainly fall into the same category as autour-du-mondegreens.

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:54 pm

    This seems to be a within-language version of "Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames" and many Buffalax videos, for which Ben Ostrowsky suggested the term "Autour-du-Mondegreens".

  7. mollymooly said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:55 pm

    Of course it's a pun. The set-up is extra-linguistic, but the punchline is all pun, baby.

    OTOH, does it fall within the definition of "mondegreen"? If not, I suggest that deliberate mondegreens should henceforth be called "Obama's elfs".

  8. Mark Liberman said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:57 pm

    I like mollymooly's suggestion.

  9. Ray Girvan said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

    It's in the territory of the Maxell cassette tape ads such as those based on "Israelite" and "Into the Valley" – autour du mondegreens without changing language – that are far more funny than Obama's Elf for the sheer bizarreness of imagery.

  10. James said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

    I think it's a mondegreen. It's an acted-out mondegreen, like the famous Jimi Hendrix performances of "Purple Haze" where he leaned over to kiss the bass player.
    Well, I'm assuming that what happened was that recently the YouTuber heard the saccharine ballad as "Obama's Elf", and decided to present it to us as Jimi did with "kiss this guy". I suppose there are other possible histories.

  11. Mark F. said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 7:05 pm

    It's a pun. The only difference between this and let your pages do the walking through the yellow fingers is that the setup is built into the video, rather than a shaggy dog story.

  12. Karen said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

    Exactly. If this were the punch line to a joke – "and then the little man cried, "I don't wanna be Obama's elf anymore!" there'd be no question, I think. It's because it's visual/musical that everyone's thinking "fake mondegreen!" instead of pun.

  13. Dan M. said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 7:24 pm

    At 3:04 in this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AVr6EAbQPQ

    "Dance, Lord Vader."

    I think the Sith can disco.

  14. Bill Benzon said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

    This sure beats arguing about universal grammar!

    Now, can we work in Sly Stone's line?. – "I wanna thank you, fa lettin' me, be myself, again"

  15. James said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 7:38 pm

    Yes, I'm convinced it's a pun. But I still think it's also a mondegreen.

  16. Lee Morgan said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 7:55 pm

    Similar YouTube videos have been around for awhile. This Pearl Jam one was quite popular:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLd22ha_-VU

  17. Mark F. said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 8:16 pm

    So, what is it about Obama's name that draws so much wordplay? I mean, Slate has a whole feature on it. More common than puns are portmanteaus like "Obamalot", but there sure are a lot of them. Is it all the open syllables? The penultimate accent?

  18. Helena said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 11:05 pm

    I don't even see clearly what the pub is meant to be. Treating Obama as if it were an Irish name?

    That is hardly new. The cartoon below features Hitler referring to the Irish Soviet Marshall Tim O'Shenko.

    If it has something to with the song rather than jsut the lyrics as presented, then forget I mentioned it, since I have no knowledge of that.

  19. Obama’s Elf | Oliver Willis said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 11:34 pm

    [...] that's just silly.(via)SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: "Obama's Elf", url: [...]

  20. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 12:23 am

    A YouTube search on "misheard lyrics" will pull up many more. One of my favorites is this one for "Complete Control" by The Clash.

  21. Sridhar Ramesh said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 3:04 am

    @Helena:

    The song is actually "All By Myself", by Eric Carmen.

  22. Obama’s Elf « Balneus said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 3:42 am

    [...] in my Eclectica of shared items, it's worth going to a 2009-02-16 Language Log post "Worst pun of all time?".  It points to an 18-second YouTube video which had me clutching my sides in [...]

  23. Fred Cummins said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 5:51 am

    To which one might usefully add O Fortuna from Orff's Carmina Burana:
    http://carmina.ytmnd.com/

  24. Ray Girvan said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 6:18 am

    a.k.a. Adagio Sostenuto, second movement of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No.2, Opus 18, in C minor.

  25. Amy Reynaldo said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 8:23 am

    I think it's just a mondegreen (possibly coaxed along rather than arising naturally) rendered visually. I wouldn't mind seeing more 20-second videos depicting mondegreens, though many don't lend themselves to as crisp a visual. "The girl with colitis goes by," for example, is a tall order.

  26. Lazar said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 9:21 am

    I saw one for that song "Call on Me" which used "Colony".

  27. Dick Margulis said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 9:48 am

    See http://kissthisguy.com/, which has been collecting misheard lyrics since the Stone Age of the Web, apparently.

  28. Ben said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 10:02 am

    One thing this video demonstrates nicely is the monophthongization of /ai/ in popular music, which has become fairly standard since the 1960s.

  29. Aaron Davies said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 10:23 am

    @Ray Girvan: you can't fool me, that can't possibly be rachmaninoff, there aren't any 128th notes!

  30. Dave Bath said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 10:26 am

    The most memorable "misheard lyric" for me was from my then-3-year-old daughter. On her first hearing of our national anthem ("Australians all, let us rejoice"), she tried to sing it.

    Her innocent and unintentionally accurate sociological analysis (and she INTENDED these words): "Australians all are ostriches"

  31. Faith said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 10:47 am

    I may have mentioned this before, but when I was a 4 we moved to Toronto. I was convinced the hockey team there was called the Make Believes.

  32. Melvyn Quince said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    It seems to me that this conversation has become silly. It started off all right but it is now silly. Any minute now someone is going to mention the Percy Sledge soul hit of which the first line is apparently "When a man loves a walnut". You don't find us Language Log staff writers… we Language Log staff writers… any of us putting silly things on Language Log just for a giggle, do you? (Well, all right, but I mean apart from those few.) Could we please get back to some serious consideration of fricatives, parrots, brain function, relative clauses, that sort of thing? Some of us think Language Log should be a sacred oasis of the Internet, a place of scholarship and quiet reflection and occasional phonetic transcription.

  33. Tom said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 11:34 am

    A personal favourite of the within-language deliberate-misinterpretation genre is comedian Adam Buxton's take on this hymn: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-ZnPE3G_YY

  34. Robert Coren said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

    @mollymooly: "Obama's elves", surely.

  35. Cessnance said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

    There's a whole series of youtube videos where people intentionally mishear non-English lyrics as if they were English:

    The nipple song and May he poop? are two ex-Hindi songs; and Moskau, Moskau used to be German.

  36. Older said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    "Obama's elf" is not a pun, it's a mondegreen, but "let your pages do the walking" is neither, it's a Spoonerism. Is that right, or do parts of words have to be exchanged to create a Spoonerism? ("Let me sew you to a sheet.")

  37. mollymooly said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

    @Robert Coren:

    @mollymooly: "Obama's elves", surely.

    Tolkien deliberately used "dwarves" and "elves" rather than the previous standards, "dwarfs" and "elfs". Against his influence, "dwarfs" has held out far better than "elfs", I guess because it's much less restricted to Tolkienesque contexts. But since an "Obama's elf" is not an "elf", the plural should follow the "Toronto Maple Leafs" rule (i.e. not "Toronto Maple Leaves")*

    *or "Toronto Make Believes" or indeed "Toronto Make Beliefs"

  38. Mark Liberman said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

    For more (than you probably want to know) about dwarfs vs. dwarves, see here.

  39. Tom Gilson said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 4:35 pm

    I sent this link to a friend and he wrote back, "Here I am Biden my own business and then this… :)…. "

  40. mollymooly said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

    Aha, it was "elfin">"elven" rather than "elfs">"elves" that Tolkien insisted on.

  41. Mark F. said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

    Older — I have to stand fast against over-narrowing of word meanings. Any time you use for humorous effect the fact that one word or phrase sounds like another, you are engaging in a pun. Yes, it's a mondegreen, but it's not an honest mistake, it's a joke. So it's a pun.

    When it was an honest mistake for someone else, but you're repeating it as a joke, well, that's a gray area.

  42. Faldone said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

    If there were some context to hang the phrase "Obama's elf" on I might consider it a pun. Failing that I think it's just a mondegreen.

  43. KCinDC said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 1:16 am

    There is a context: the video. It's no less context than the setup for many other puns involving unlikely phrases.

  44. Paul said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 4:09 am

    Some of us think Language Log should be a sacred oasis of the Internet, a place of scholarship and quiet reflection and occasional phonetic transcription, said Melvyn Quince. I can't offer much in the way of reflection, scholarship or sacred oases, but—to satisfy the legendary MQ—I do have an occasional phonetic transcription.

    Are there any varieties of English, I wonder, in which rhyme laterals turn up as vowels (as in London or Glasgow, say) *and* in which alveolar fricatives are all voiceless (as in some Welsh-influenced English, which might also resist a final schwa in Obama)? Then we might have a truer pun with something like [ɔbamasɛʊf]. On a quick and not very high quality listen it does sound like there might be laterals of some sort in this particular production of the song, though.

  45. Faldone said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 6:49 am

    @KCinDC

    By context to hang it on I meant context for the phrase "Obama's elf" external to the song and unrelated to the phrase "all by myself". And even if it were a pun I fail to see how it could be considered so bad that it was noteworthy for its badness.

  46. mollymooly said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 9:05 am

    @Faldone

    By context to hang it on I meant context for the phrase "Obama's elf" external to the song and unrelated to the phrase "all by myself". And even if it were a pun I fail to see how it could be considered so bad that it was noteworthy for its badness.

    The phrase "Obama's elf" has no external or pre-existing use. It was contrived precisely for the purpose of punning. Contrived puns are inherently worse than non-contrived puns.

    That said, there are ways to make worse puns:

    – purely verbal puns normally need both a story to create the context where the contrived half is understandable, and also the insertion of irrelevances to distract the hearer from spotting the contrivance ahead of the punchline. Think of the fisherman whose son was called Away, or the worm named Motor. The time wasted listening to such stories annoys the listener, where this youtube clip gets straight to the payoff.

    – a pun where both of the equated expressions are contrived should be worse than one such as this where only one is. Try inventing a scenario to link "Biden's L" to "Bye, Denzell!" See also Holorime

    Thus, for puns, there seem to be two kinds of badness: one is annoyingly pointless, i.e. bad; the other is exuberantly childish, i.e. good. I guess the same is true of many types of humour.

  47. Andrew said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

    Re 'dwarves': I have an idea that I have read somewhere that Tolkien originally used 'dwarves' unthinkingly, was then told that it was non-standard, and so invented a theoretical justification for his usage. Certainly he was not the inventor of the form, but he may be responsible for its becoming more widespread and less likely to provoke prescriptivist wrath.

  48. Frederic said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    The most atrocious pun in history come from Frank Muir, one of the great master of the dark art of wordplay. On the English radio series "My Word" the contestants were given a saying or proverb and had to explain how it originated. Frank got Gertrude Stein's famous adage "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose." His explanation:

    "Nero and Cicero had rose gardens next to each other. The tender of Nero's garden had a mishap and destroyed a whole row of roses. So he sneaked over to Cicero's garden, stole a row from there and replaced the ones missing in his master's garden. However, they were white, while the ones in Nero's garden were pink or "rose-colored". When Nero saw this he wrote a note to the gardener: "Our roses are rose. Is a row Cicero's?""

    If you read Muir's line "Our roses are rose. Is a row Cicero's?", remembering that in British English the "r" in "our" and "are" is not pronounced (both words, when spoken quickly, can sound a bit like "a"), and if you mutter the line quickly, many times, you can get it to sound exactly like the Stein sentence.

    Source: http://www.chessbase.com/newsdetail.asp?newsid=4449

  49. Faldone said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

    @Frederic:

    Made worse by the fact that the Gertrude Stein line did not have an initial "A". It was "Rose is a rose is a rose."

    @mollymooly:

    I guess it's the lack of an external context for "Obama's elf" that makes this, at best, a pun wannabe in my estimation.

  50. Bob Ladd said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

    Rainer Hersch is genius at stuff like "Obama's elf". Just google his name and you'll find a number of links. If you ever get a chance to see him live, take it. He doesn't seem to come Edinburgh at Festival time any more.

    I'd vote for intentional mondegreen, by the way, not pun.

  51. Liz said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 11:09 pm

    Personally, I was thinking of a scenario in which Robert Rubin is thrown under the bus by Obama's people, thus making the joke something of a quadruple threat.

    Lizzy

  52. B Milton said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 5:16 am

    My father–a fervid Language Hat commenter himself–spent much of third-grade puzzling over where exactly Tisly was and why him and his classmates had to sing their allegiance to it every day. You know the song, "My country Tisly, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing."

    Of course, as the daughter of two geologists, it wasn't until fifth grade that I realized you don't "take something for granite," you "take it for granted."

  53. Sunday Stars for February 22nd | Weight Upon the Lord said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 7:48 am

    [...] Worst Pun of All Time – Very silly, but very funny. [...]

  54. David Marjanović said,

    February 22, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

    "My country Tisly, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing."

    Well, the Polish national epic does call the fatherland "Lithuania"…

    Of course, as the daughter of two geologists, it wasn't until fifth grade that I realized you don't "take something for granite," you "take it for granted."

    This is just too cool… It would make a lot of sense, after all!

  55. Aaron Davies said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 11:07 am

    @andrew: tolkien liked to do that kind of thing. apparently he would sometimes derive "historical" changes to the various elvish languages by noting and canonicalizing his own mistakes, and he once declared a character a reincarnation because he accidently reused the same name (glorfindel).

  56. Aaron Davies said,

    February 23, 2009 @ 11:11 am

    @mollymooly: the french bit on the wikipedia page you linked reminds me of another french line: "napoléon, cédant sedan, céda ses dents"

  57. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 8:10 pm

    If you're classifying these things, where do Walt Kelly's songs fit in? Such as "Deck Us All With Boston Charlie".

  58. Miss Piggy Lunchbox » Blog Archive » Obama’s Elf said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

    [...] so I still like to highlight those that stand out for me.  And I love this one, which I first saw via Language Log, which makes this about the only interesting post ever on Language [...]

  59. Del Cotter said,

    March 4, 2009 @ 9:14 am

    I find it hard to believe Tolkien would accidentally duplicate a name, and still harder to believe he would try to "recover" from the mistake, because he deliberately duplicated names so many times. Readers familiar with The Lord of the Rings, coming to The Silmarillion for the first time, will be surprised to find an earlier Boromir, an earlier Denethor, an earlier Ecthelion, an earlier Minas Tirith, Grond, and, most strangely to me, Gothmog. I'm sure I haven't remembered them all.

    Tolkien was a rare case of a fiction writer deliberately duplicating names; most writers avoid it in their fiction, even though real life abounds with duplicates (ask me about all the Daves).

  60. Felix Sputnik said,

    August 16, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

    Well, I am delighted that a 3 hour enterprise of mine has attracted so much brain effort to try and explain it.
    I guess it is possibly a mondegreen, but here is how it started.
    My mate Neville and I have a spoonerism game, in which we begin with statements such as:
    What is the difference between what you write on a fragile parcel and a wax stick with a beard?
    Handle with care and candle with hair.
    This quickly deteriorated into:
    What is the similarity between a huge lottery jackpot and someone who fancies kaviar?
    Rollover and Roe lover.
    I tried Obama's elf one night and got no real laughs out of Neville, so I decided that, though I am German and thus not capable of being funny, I would prove to him I could make it work, so I animated it and that was that…

    Felix.

  61. Obama’s Elf « Manchet said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 3:54 pm

    [...] the Language Log, in a Manchet exclusive, Obama's Elf makes his first UK linguistics blog appearance. [...]

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