Phonetic re-analysis

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Dilbert from yesterday:

And today:

Would this be a better joke if the pronunciations were closer? I'm not sure.

My favorite example of phrasal homophony:

There was a cranky TV set in the common room of a house I lived in. I changed the channel to tune in a baseball game, using a knob on the set because this was in neolithic times before remote controls were normal. The reception on the new channel was kind of jumpy and static-y. One of my friends, watching from a couch across the room, said "Did a little little little help."

I said "Huh?"

What he meant, of course, was "Diddle it a little, it'll help."


  1. Jonathon said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

    This isn't a phonetic reanalysis, but your last example reminded me of a common pitfall for copy editors: the phrase "I edited it", which usually comes out /aɪ ɛɾɪɾɪɾɪt/.

  2. Martha said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

    "Edited it" was one of our most favorite things to say in fifth grade, when our writing teacher required a lot of editing.

  3. Stan said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

    I don't know the origin of this joke; I copied it from a comment on a blog that's no longer online. Here seems like the perfect place for it.

    Sir Henry gets a new manservant, James. James' first duty is to attend Sir Henry in his bath. Sir Henry is initially happy, in the bubbles, playing with his ducky, when suddenly he feels uncomfortable and realises he must fart!

    Shy in front of James, who is standing to attention with a towel folded over his arm, he orders him, "James, fetch me a glass of brandy!" James busies himself hanging up the towel, and gracefully glides over to the door, but it's all too late for Sir Henry, who can't help farting just as James turns the handle. James turns and looks at Sir Henry strangely, then goes out.

    He comes back some time later, carrying a silver tray upon which stand the glass of brandy, a jar of Bovril, and a hot water bottle.

    "Where have you been, James, and what the devil is this?!" explodes Sir Henry.

    "I'm sorry, your lordship, but as I was leaving the room, I could have sworn you asked me for a hot water bottle and a bottle of Bovril."

  4. Rod Johnson said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 2:32 pm

    Did that really happen, Mark!? Wow.

    Ken Pike used to use "Ed had edited it," transcribed [ɛɾəɾɛɾəɾəɾɪt], to illustrate… something.

  5. Darryl Shpak said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

    In the spirit of "Diddle it a little, it'll help", the Barenaked Ladies song "What A Letdown" contains the line "Maybe if I jiggle it a little it'll open up on its own."

    Having the phrase contained within a sentence makes it surprisingly easy to understand, even though it's sung with a rhythm to emphasize the homophony.

  6. Eric P Smith said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 4:33 pm

    Then there was the guy who got a potato clock every morning.

  7. Froglady said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 4:57 pm

    when I was a kid, my marathon running father came home from a run one afternoon. He sat down on the back deck and asked me to get him something.from the kitchen. I came back with a flyswatter. He didn't understand why I wasn't carrying an ice water.

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 5:37 pm

    'Scuse me while I kiss this guy.

    I find "edited it" easier to say if I use a [t] rather than a flap for the "t" in "edited". Maybe there's something to be said for RP after all.

    Perhaps I may be allowed to quote the first stanza of "The New Republic is Infuriated at the News Coverage", by George Starbuck:

    Teletype music. OK, Maestro, hit it.
    Chug chug chug chug chug, but the way they've split it
    Into its drumbeats and re-edited it it
    Dances like a machine gun. Like a bird.

  9. Lazar said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 6:22 pm

    @Rod Johnson: Edward Woodward would (if you're non-rhotic).

  10. David Morris said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

    I think the joke is precisely that the mishearing is so far-fetched; that only someone of the boss's ignorance and certainty would have made it.

  11. Jeff Carney said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 7:06 pm

    I think David Morris has it. It's not a joke you could tell. But in the context of the strip, it's perfect. Old pointy head is just that stupid.

  12. Nat Mishkin said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 8:59 pm

    My son, as a child, as the family was leaving the house, to my wife: "Why did you say 'Take a picture of the backwards clock'?". It took us a bit to recognize it as a reanalysis of her "Check to see if the back door's locked" to me. "Take a picture of the backwards clock" thereafter become our family's code phrase to be pulled out whenever someone misunderstands something.

  13. Catanea said,

    July 28, 2012 @ 3:23 am

    Somewhere in Dorothy L. Sayers's Murder Must Advertise (which I haven't got hand and so cannot verify, someone is quoted as saying "Punch away, you're for it." which is later seen to be more-or-less homophonic with "Mountjoy, you're for it." I found it strange, but I suppose it depends on the accent.

  14. Hari said,

    July 28, 2012 @ 6:35 am

    Sorry Stan, I can't get the joke. Can someone explain?

  15. Michael Shewmaker said,

    July 28, 2012 @ 7:35 am

    Expectation and interest play such a great role in interpretation. My ex-wife and I once ran to the TV to catch the "Balkan Ice Dancing" only to be disappointed by an automobile's "bulk and high stance." We were both dancers with little attention to automobiles and simultaneously misinterpreted the sounds.

  16. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 28, 2012 @ 8:47 am

    @Hari: I think "a hot water bottle and a bottle of Bovril" is supposed to sound like Sir Henry's underwater fart.

  17. John O'Toole said,

    July 28, 2012 @ 11:56 am

    My native Swiss-Romande wife, who speaks English very well, taking directions over the phone from our monolingual American sister-in-law, some sixteen years ago (my wife was still relatively unfamiliar with American English). My wife later rereading the directions back to me:

    –Park in the colder sack.
    –The colder sack? C'est quoi ca?
    –C'est ce qu'elle a dit. Colder sack. Je lui ai demande de repeter en plus…

    Stop the car. Have a look at the directions. Oh, right, cul-de-sac.

    Our sister-in-law was very crestfallen that the one thing from French that she was saying to her French-speaking sister-in-law wasn't registering.

  18. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 28, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

    @Catanea: That reminds me of one of Chesterton's Father Brown stories, which I won't spoil here.

  19. Ken Brown said,

    July 28, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

    This Brit can't see what "I edited it" is meant to be mistaken for. Even if I try to "hear" it in an American accent where the flapped "t" sounds (to me) like a "d". (which can happen to the "t" in "edited" in my own accent I think, it sort of accquires a bit of voicing from its surroundings – unlike the "t" of "it" which is more usually a glottal stop)

  20. Ellen K. said,

    July 28, 2012 @ 2:44 pm

    Ken Brown, it's not meant to be mistaken for anything. I think that's what Jonathan means by "This isn't a phonetic reanalysis." It's just that the triple repetition of the same sounds, the dih, dih, dih(t) (or see the first comment for IPA), with the closing t being not all too different from the flapped d/t's.

  21. Lazar said,

    July 28, 2012 @ 4:53 pm

    @Ken Brown: From my perspective as an AmEng speaker, it's not that it's mistaken for anything, but just that it's difficult to say and sounds silly.

  22. Paul Kay said,

    July 28, 2012 @ 6:05 pm

    My sister-in-law was fussing over her little boy as she was going to be away from him for the first time, at a convention in Miami. Little boy: Will you bring me a present from your ami?

  23. Tom said,

    July 28, 2012 @ 11:09 pm

    While discussing phrasal homophony, a friend referred me to the hip-hop song "Rollin' Dough" by Lafa Taylor. (

  24. Fred said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 4:47 am

    RE: "edited it". Not only is it hard to say, as Lazar pointed out, but it has the very real consequence of mentally losing your place within a single word.

  25. Mary Apodaca said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 6:28 am

    I just have to share this. My husband yesterday said that it was really hot in Death Desert.

  26. Ken Brown said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

    So its a tongue-twister.

    Like "the Leith police"

  27. Theophylact said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 4:49 pm

    There's a John Dickson Carr (can't remember which) where a witness hears a dying victim say "your gloves" — but it's actually "Vaughan", the name of the killer.

  28. Theophylact said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 4:51 pm

    (Depends on having two francophones in an anglophone context, with mispronunciation. Typical Carr.)

  29. Just another Peter said,

    July 29, 2012 @ 7:23 pm

    There's also a movie called Divorcing Jack, the title being based on the premise of a dying woman's last words being heard as "Divorce Jack" instead of "Dvořák"

  30. Stan said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 6:58 am

    @Hari: Jerry is right. In the joke, James heard Sir Henry breaking wind in the bath, and interpreted the sound as a request for "hot water bottle and a bottle of Bovril".

  31. Bob Lieblich said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 7:04 am

    True story (no, really):

    Many years ago, I commuted to work by bus. I had to transfer from one bus to another, and the schedule was such that those of us doing so would often barely miss one bus at the transfer point and have to stand there for about ten minutes waiting for the next one. It finally dawned on us to ask the driver of the bus to which we were transferring to wait for us, and he would do so for roughly a minute, but if we didn't get there within that minute he'd have to leave.

    So one day I'm on the first bus, approaching the transfer point, and deep in conversation with another regular. I've long since forgotten the topic, but it was such that as we climbed off the bus to run ahead to the waiting second bus, I had occasion to say "de gustibus" to the other rider. Whereupon the driver of the bus we were leaving said "No, it's waiting for you."

    I repeat – I am not making this up.

  32. Brian T said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 7:42 am

    I knew a newspaper reporter who interviewed a prominent Southern writer in the early '90s. He asked her if she had been a rebellious youth, and according to the article as printed, she said not really, the worst instance was when she used to crawl into her parents' bed with a baby bottle full of Southern Comfort.

    The day this was printed, the writer phoned the reporter and icily intoned, "It was chocolate milk." Somehow the phrase "chocolate milk" was pronounced in such a way that a reporter could go back and listen to the audiotape and still swear he was hearing "Southern Comfort" and get at least one co-worker to say "Yeah, I guess I can see how you could hear that." Nonetheless, an awkward correction ensued.

  33. Elise said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 8:14 am

    When we were children, we excitedly tuned in for the TV show "Deflator Mouse" only to be disappointed by a performance of "Die Fledermaus."

  34. Mr Punch said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 8:22 am

    The Carr book cited by Theophylact is Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956); there is a somewhat similar misunderstanding (Brougham/broom/brush) in Philip MacDonald's List of Adrian Messenger (1959). Suspicious.

  35. hbunny said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

    The fair Lady Mondegreen!

    My favorite personal example of this (not really a Mondegreen) was when I was eating some bite-sized ice cream treats with an old friend. I told her I was done and was going to put them away and she responded "budda munna wunna seka won".

    After several confusing moments, I eventually parsed "but, I'm gonna want a second one". But, the phrase "budda munna wunna seka won" became a regular response when one of us could not make out what the other was saying.

  36. Joyce Melton said,

    July 30, 2012 @ 3:25 pm

    In a grocery store in 1965, my brother and I clearly heard someone say over the speaker system, "Tooney fooney fooney foo, David."

    After we quit laughing, we found the fellow who had made the announcement and he answered our obvious question. What he'd really said was, "Tuna's only on aisle two, David."

    As others have reported, the misheard phrase became our code for bad communication and has remained so for nearly forty years.

  37. Bill Paterson said,

    July 31, 2012 @ 11:15 am

    True story (the guilty aunt is still embarrassed).

    Aunt 1: He's going to Seattle.

    Aunt 2: Who's Addle?

  38. bks said,

    August 1, 2012 @ 9:30 am

    New San Francisco Giants's outfielder Hunter Pence is also known as underpants.


  39. NemaVeze said,

    August 2, 2012 @ 7:24 pm

    Isn't there a French novelty verse form that relies on phrasal homophony? I think I've seen this attributed to Victor Hugo:

    Gal, amant de la Reine, alla, tour magnanime,
    galamment de l'Arène à la Tour Magne, à Nîmes

  40. Kasper said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 10:34 am

    In one of Colin Watson's 'Murder most English' stories, the plot hinges on the dying victim's last words: 'The fur's darker' … in fact, he'd said 'the Verstärker' — 'amplifier'in German. (Hardly worth your reading the story now — sorry!)

  41. Valter said,

    August 3, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

    A few years ago I used to work as a postman, here in my home town of Gothenburg, Sweden. One quite stressful day I had to fill in for someone who was sick, and deliver a route that included a retirement home. After leaving the mail adressed to people I hadn't been able to find in the register (I supposed they had passed away) at the reception, I continued through a corridor to deliver letters at the doors of the individual residents. On the way there I passed a lounge where a few senior citizens were sitting, staring blankly at a tv. It was tuned to some commercial American station, and as I walked past a young woman on the screen looked up from her household work and said, smiling, to the camera: "if you're like me, you hate irony". I spent a while digesting how surreal the whole situation was before I realized exactly what the woman was doing before she turned to the screen, and what she actually said.

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