Superb Owls

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Query from a journalist:

I'm working on a piece on superb owls, which become popular around this time of year because of the Superbowl. Do you happen to know if there's a name for this phenomenon of splitting a word in a different-than-intended way to change its meaning? Have you come across other examples of this?

I come up empty (except for the examples in "Letters Witch"), but I bet commenters can provide other examples and suitable terminology.



77 Comments

  1. Shimon Edelman said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 5:16 pm

    This reminds me of the story of Lieutenant Kijé (Поручик Киже), based on a Russian wordplay and a historical anecdote. The Wikipedia has entries for it, in English (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lieutenant_Kij%C3%A9) and in Russian (https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%9F%D0%BE%D1%80%D1%83%D1%87%D0%B8%D0%BA_%D0%9A%D0%B8%D0%B6%D0%B5).

  2. rm said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 5:17 pm

    cow orkers

  3. dst said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 5:23 pm

    This is a pretty common phenomenon in German, presumably because of the higher frequency of long nouns. A classic example is Blumentopf-erde vs. Blumento-pferde. I am afraid I don't know of a German term for it either.

  4. Michael Leddy said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 5:24 pm

    Wait — Super Bowl is two words.

    Assume and therapist have been split in meaningful ways.

    Watching an episode of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo last night, I misread a screen title as BAGS TO RAGE.

  5. Y said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 5:29 pm

    Do you happen to know if there's a name for this phenomenon of splitting a word in a different-than-intended way to change its meaning?

    I nominate "Superb Owl". Just like Eggcorn and Mondegreen.

  6. Jamie said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 5:32 pm

    Isn't it the same phenomenon as the metanalysis/rebracketing that changed "a natron" to "an apron"?

    Although that doesn't change the meaning, so not really the same …

  7. MonkeyBoy said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 5:50 pm

    "cow orker" seems to have its origins on Usenet in the 1980s.

  8. Thaomas said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 5:51 pm

    Is this like trying to persuade certain sex abusers that "harass" is one word?

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 5:52 pm

    "Cow orker" is still seen occasionally on Usenet, along with the usual kind of playful extensions such as "orking cows" and "orqueur de vaches".

    Comments on a Language Log post in 2013 reminded me of "wee knights" and "man's laughter", which Theophylact (who's still around) called "redivisible words". Also mentioned were URLs such as penisland.com and powergenitalia.com.

    Next: Scunthorpe.

  10. neminem said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 5:57 pm

    Not quite identical, but related: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheProblemWithPenIsland

  11. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 5:57 pm

    Is there a name for words that are one example used to name the category it exemplifies, like "mondegreen", "eggcorn", and allegedly "marrowsky"? Synecdochologies? It would be nice if one could use one of those words to mean the category, but I don't think it's workable.

  12. ===Dan said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 6:10 pm

    In the language of cryptic clues, when you put together two (or more) words to make a new word (or phrase) that has no etymological connection to the pieces, it's called a "charade." It gets its name from the game of "charades."

  13. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 6:11 pm

    This makes me think of the play on NOWHERE/NOW HERE at the end of Diana Wynne Jones's Fire and Hemlock.

    I was also reading a comment earlier where someone misread #letitsnow as 'le tits now'. (There's a tag I'm always doing that with, but it's not that one, and I can't think what it is.)

  14. rm said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 6:20 pm

    Lawn Guyland, Guyland for short

  15. Greg said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 6:27 pm

    I'd echo what Dan said above: this sort of wordplay is common in cryptic crosswords.

  16. zafrom said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 6:43 pm

    1) Thank you Ms. Jen. Good to know that Edinburgh is also happening now. 2) rm? Mr Mew? Your thread debuted 2 hours and 50 minutes previously. Congrats for finally bulling your way in. 3) charade? What a cleaning woman tipples to help her reach the top? (Hopefully no owls of protest.)

  17. John H said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 6:53 pm

    If you want a word for this, what about "schizoepia", vaguely modelled along the lines of "onomatopoeia" from schizo- "split" and epos "word" and the suffix -ia? (And not forgetting, I believe, that epos began with digamma.)

  18. Jenny Chu said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 7:06 pm

    I associate this most strongly with Darryl Hammond playing Sean Connery in the Saturday Night Live skit "Celebrity Jeopardy"

  19. Karl Weber said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 7:39 pm

    Here is one of Lewis Carroll's "Puzzles from Wonderland":

    That salmon and sole Puss should think very grand
    Is no such remarkable thing.
    For more of these dainties Puss took up her stand;
    But when the third sister stretched out her fair hand
    Pray why should Puss swallow her ring?

    The puzzle turns, of course, on "her ring" versus "herring."

  20. Chips Mackinolty said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 7:46 pm

    At a pub discussion a few years ago discussing why politicians were so prone to "brain snap" utterances.

    A response from a mate: "it's when their brains nap".

  21. Daisy said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 7:54 pm

    Somebody mentioned Pen Island (penisland.com). The other, similar URL that used to be brought up in this context is the website for Experts Exchange….

  22. Laura Morland said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 8:50 pm

    @ Jenny Chu — thanks for the reference. Fun way to end my evening (and cute "schizoepia"): https://youtu.be/Ch_hoYPPeGc

  23. Joe Fineman said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 9:49 pm

    Advice, by my father, a long time ago, on recovering from an affair: Have a not her.

  24. John Chew said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 10:36 pm

    MANS LAUGHTER, which I'm pretty sure I first saw in a cryptic crossword.

  25. John Chew said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 10:45 pm

    I've made a list of the 16,578 ambiguous compounds in the current edition of the Scrabble lexicon, and posted it here:

    http://www.scrabbleplayers.org/tmp/twl2016-compound-ambiguity.txt

    Most are boring (I perhaps should have deleted all the ones with a two-letter component), but there were a few that I hadn't thought of before (and perhaps now can't unsee, such as ASS-ENTER).

  26. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 10:50 pm

    Is the following bilingual quip common among students of French in secondary schools in the United States at least in the 1960s and 1970s relevant?

    One egg is un oeuf (= one egg is enough).

    And the following?

    In "Support Your Local Sheriff" (an American film released in 1969), a sign over the local brothel reads MADAME ORR'S HOUSE.

  27. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 11:04 pm

    Are the following examples of the phenomenon under discussion?

    In "Support Your Local Sheriff," an American film released in 1969, the sign over the local brothel says MADAME ORR'S HOUSE.

    A bilingual quip among students of French in American secondary schools at least in the 1960s and 1970s was:

    One egg is un oeuf [un oeuf = enough].

  28. John Chew said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 11:10 pm

    I posted a link to an exhaustive list of such ambiguous compounds based on a Scrabble word list, but the comment hasn't shown up here yet. Just posting this comment to see if I'm being moderated.

  29. John Chew said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 11:14 pm

    http://scrabbleplayers.org/tmp/twl2016-compound-ambiguity.txt

  30. Frank Southworth said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 11:33 pm

    massage the rapist (massage therapist)

  31. Jenny Chu said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 11:41 pm

    @Laura Morland – There is a compendium of his schizoepiae starting from this time marker: https://youtu.be/8_iBpZqlwxs?t=298

  32. Bloix said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 12:31 am

    Many years ago, when lawyers like me still had secretaries who typed our documents for us, I had a secretary who often made a spacing error like this. For "does not," she would type – well, you figure it out.

  33. rosie said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 1:02 am

    I favour Dan's suggestion of "charade", because "charade" has referred to this kind of wordplay since before it was applied to crossword clues.

    One old charade is "amiable together"/"Am I able to get her?"

    Vernon Watson adopted the stage name Nosmo King in the 1930s.

  34. Gregory Marton said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 2:03 am

    There are lists of funny urls or embarrassing domain names, many of which follow this pattern. The most famous url charade example I recall is this misunderstanding: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2001/03/16/transsexuals_drawn_to_expert_website/

  35. unekdoud said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 3:59 am

    I once had a confusion over whether it was legal in Scrabble to bridge two words with a letter from another (seas+h+ore = seashore, to+i+let=toilet). Apparently it is.

    In other things that aren't superb owls, there's an old joke based on a heteronym: "How can you tell the difference between a chemist and a plumber? Ask them to pronounce the word unionized."

    Speaking of which, lists of unusual chemical names include many puns. Just using the non- prefix for groups of 9, you can get terms like nonanal and nonose. There's also the molecule "germane" which shares an etymological ancestor with its homonymic adjective.

  36. Simon K said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 4:30 am

    I'll back up the use of "charade", as it's an existing term of art from cryptic crossword solving/compiling. And I'll add my favourite mental image, which is when a TV channel advertises their Monday to Friday evening programming by saying something along the lines of "weeknights on Channel 9".

  37. David Marjanović said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 5:35 am

    I am afraid I don't know of a German term for it either.

    I'm pretty sure there isn't one. There aren't any for eggcorn or mondegreen either.

    One egg is un oeuf [un oeuf = enough].

    I know a delightful one. It's Schwarzenegger-related and compares (nonrhotic) English to eastern Styrian like this for several iterations. Let's see… English is actually quite easy, because…

    /i/ ich is I
    /ɛi/ Ei is egg
    /egː/ Eck(e) is corner
    and /koɐ̯nɐ/ keiner is nobody.

  38. Philip Taylor said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 5:57 am

    As noted recently in another thread, re-publication v. republic-ation.

  39. C said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 6:37 am

    Oxford Dictionaries blogged the same question, in April 2018. They concluded there wasn't yet a word for it, but it's an interesting blog post (though not as entertaining as the comments here):
    https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2018/04/05/super-bowl-superb-owl-wordplay-name/

  40. ~flow said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 6:54 am

    It seems to me there should a line be drawn between mishearings in a more general sense and faulty parsing on the other; as for the latter, one should probably distinguish between those that work phonetically (i.e. misplacing pauses, stress and such) and those that strictly only work on the orthographic level (those that read out the same letters (and redistributed spaces, as the case may be) with different sounds).

    FWIW I relate here a classic one reported in https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/hotel-of-the-gods/ from the same source where I first heard it, and it seems to me correctly classified as urban legend:

    As the African nations continue their progress toward modernization, statements by African delegates to the United Nations tend to underline the abandonment of old tribal ways. One French-speaking African delegate, for example, made this declaration: "Africa no longer erects altars to the gods." (L'Afrique n'érige plus des autels aux dieux.) But the interpreter, thinking that the word autels was hôtels and that aux dieux was odieux, translated the delegate's phrase as "Africa no longer builds horrible hotels." (L'Afrique n'érige plus des hôtels odieux.)

    In a way, this would be an inverted Blumentopferde / charade / schizopoetism (?), as the interpreter misgrouped (re-arranged) the sounds heard in such a way that another meaning with a different orthographic shape was arrived at that nonetheless makes perfect sense too (in isolation).

  41. ~flow said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 7:06 am

    It seems to me that some languages are so rife with opportunities for this kind of misunderstanding (charades / schizoepia) that one the one hand, there are many language games and literature including poetry around this, and, on the other hand, the phenomenon is an appreciable hurdle for L2 learners. The languages I'm thinking of here are Japanese, and, to a much lesser degree, Chinese.

  42. Fred said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 7:11 am

    'Schizoepia' is brilliant; far more unambiguous & precise than 'charade,' in my reading first because the most common association is with split personality, which such words have, and second why reassign a new meaning to an existing word when you can make a new word? It's delicious like spoken ice cream.

  43. richardelguru said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 7:29 am

    False tmesis of course

  44. Rodger C said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 7:50 am

    Pseu-DOT-me-sis.

  45. AK said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 8:39 am

    these all sound like SNL Jeopardy Sean Connery-isms: the pen is mightier, catch these men, an album cover…

  46. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 9:48 am

    May Swenson used "he art" in a poem about Robert Frost. It has many other broken-up words but I didn't notice any others where all the fragments are words.

  47. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 10:16 am

    Better to have loved a short girl than never to have loved a tall.

  48. S said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 10:42 am

    The url examples are great:

    "Later, Austin Miller and Randy Redberg took ownership of Experts Exchange, and the company was made profitable again… Originally, Experts Exchange could be reached by visiting expertsexchange.com, which can be read as "Expert Sex Change".[6]"

  49. Russell said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 11:50 am

    rosie – "Nosmo King" was a now-defunct New York City vegan restaurant (named, they said, after their policy on tobacco)

    unekdoud – I believe that the "unionized" test came from Isaac Asimov

    Finally, I remember a word game in The Atlantic where one entry had an imagined author of an Italian cookbook named "Pete Zapai." Not exactly a superb-owl, but a close relative.

  50. Stuart Luppescu said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 12:34 pm

    I remember a similar resegmentation we used to do back in the early '70s. For example:
    Watch all we doodle the mess eye a comes? Stays toned.
    Translation: "What shall we do 'til the messiah comes? Stay stoned."

  51. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 12:47 pm

    I remember the little flash of enlightenment when I first discovered that a painstaking person is one who takes pains.

  52. Robert Coren said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 1:31 pm

    @Stuart Luppescu: This sounds rather like the stuff in Anguish Languish.

  53. Robert Coren said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 1:32 pm

    That was supposed to be a link: Anguish Languish.

  54. Joke Kalisvaart said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 2:09 pm

    For those of you who read Dutch:
    In Dutch we call these bommelwoorden and somebody collects them here:
    http://www.dejongenskamer.nl/bommelwoord.htm

  55. Jonathan said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 2:11 pm

    Firstly, thank you to Shimon for the link to the Kijé story. I've loved the Mussorgsky music forever but had never known the origin.

    Secondly, though I don't have a suggestion for a name I'll add an example I found out about recently: If you know Swahili, Kilimanjaro is made up of two components, 'kilima' + 'njaro'.

  56. Stephen Hart said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 2:13 pm

    Nosmo King was also a character in the game Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
    From Wikipedia:
    "Gag names ("Hardley Worthit", "Rob M. Blind", "Ruth Less", "Joy Ryder", "M. T. Pockets", etc.) were quite frequently used in the games, often to the point where Carmen herself seemed to be the only person without such a name."

  57. Theophylact said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 2:19 pm

    Jerry Friedman: Yeah, I seem to remember commenting, though not coining the term. I have been trying to invent a verse form that depends on such pairs, without much success.

    There's a German verse form, based on Spoonerisms, called Schüttelreim:

    Du sollst ein krankes Nierenbecken
    nicht mit zu kalten Bieren necken.
    Auch sollte man bei Magenleiden
    den Wein aus sauren Lagen meiden.

  58. Laura said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 2:57 pm

    Now even Google plays this trick, if you search for "superb owl" you still get the game results but with a twist.

  59. Karl Weber said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 3:23 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: The reference to Robert Frost reminds me that he used to call the poet Alfred Noyes "Mr. No-Yes."

  60. Philip Taylor said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 4:08 pm

    And of course the poor souls who have the surname "Death" (sometimes DeAth or De'Ath), correctly pronounced /diːθ/ or /diːˈæθ/ but of course pronounced by all schoolboys (and the occasional innocent) as /deθ/. And the famous lexicographer and etymologist Charles Onions (/əʊˈnaɪˌənz/) who at school (and perhaps later) must surely have been /ˈʌnˌjənz/.

  61. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 11:51 pm

    @ Stephen Hart —

    Those sorts of punning names were a staple of "book title" jokes that got passed around on the playground when I was in elementary school. One favorite was "Glass Girdles by Seymour Hair" (or perhaps Seymour Heyer). As I recall, sexual innuendo was a staple of the genre.

    Maybe someone at Carmen Sandiego was familiar with similar jokes.

    There's also a genre of compiled names for putative law firms. My family liked "Fake, Muddle & Swindle" and Car Talk often referenced "Dewey, Cheatham & Howe."

  62. David Morris said,

    February 1, 2019 @ 5:34 am

    @Phillip Taylor: You have just ruined the OED for me.

  63. Philip Taylor said,

    February 1, 2019 @ 6:03 am

    David M — Confused. What have I done w.r.t. the OED which has so distressed you ?

  64. David Morris said,

    February 1, 2019 @ 7:03 am

    @Phillip: That the pronunciation of Mr Onions' name is not 'Onions'.

  65. Suzanne Valkemirer said,

    February 1, 2019 @ 11:07 am

    @ Philip Taylor. I did not know that Charles Talbut Onions pronounced his family name differently from the common noun onions.

    I knew Allen Walker Read (1906-2002), who knew Onions (1873-1965) and mentioned him several times. Had Read pronounced the name differently from onions, I would have noticed.

    It would seem, therefore, that Onions later made peace with the pronunciation /ˈʌnˌjənz/.

  66. Philip Taylor said,

    February 1, 2019 @ 11:34 am

    I may well have been mistaken. In By Peter Gilliver's The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary one can read :

    [C]ontrary to what has sometimes been alleged. Charles Onions did not pronounce his surname with the stress on the second syllable, as if spelled O'Nions, as some of his namesakes have certainly done; at least, numerous individuals who knew him in Oxford over many years have assured me that he pronounced it in the same way as the vegetable (although,as he was no doubt aware. the surname, which is of Celtic origin, and the name of the vegetable are etymologically unrelated.

  67. Nathan said,

    February 2, 2019 @ 12:35 am

    I remember some discussion of the hashtag "no tall men".

  68. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 2, 2019 @ 3:48 am

    On trans-lingual examples:
    my mother once asked me to get some man-get-out peas.
    A French friend would relate how the actress/singer Aretha so-and-so had married Sean Connery, and was therefore now called Aretha Connery.

    In the junior school playground recommended reading was "the White Cliffs" by Eileen Dover (brother of Ben Dover)

  69. Robert Coren said,

    February 2, 2019 @ 9:29 am

    @Jonathan: You may love Mussorgsky's music, but Lieutenant Kijé is by Prokofiev.

  70. Robert Coren said,

    February 2, 2019 @ 9:32 am

    When I was a Harvard undergraduate — a very long time ago, long before there was such a thing as "The Facebook" — there was a directory published every year of the phone numbers of all the undergrads, with the entries submitted by the individuals themselves. There were always a bunch of joke entries, most of them both puerile and obscene.

  71. KevinM said,

    February 2, 2019 @ 10:30 am

    These pop up in crosswords all the time, causing episodes of delayed recognition. To take a random example, yesterday's NYT xword had "Liver Emote" (a kind of newscast).

  72. unekdoud said,

    February 2, 2019 @ 6:11 pm

    @Nathan: I learnt that one by John Oliver's version of it, No Tall Foxes. Here's the probably georestricted official link: https://youtu.be/nG2pEffLEJo?t=680

  73. Peter S. said,

    February 2, 2019 @ 9:43 pm

    I feel like somebody should comment on the original meaning of charade (which nobody has done yet). It was a kind of riddle popular around 1800, and which appeared in the book Emma by Jane Austen.

    An example from Jane Austen with a rather gruesome answer. (You can easily find the answer online by googling, if you give up.)

    When my first is a task to a young girl of spirit,

    And my second confines her to finish the piece,

    How hard is her fate! but how great is her merit

    If by taking my whole she effects her release!

    Here, in the OP's example, "my first" would be "superb", "my second" would be "owl" and "my whole" would be "superbowl".

    And the name comes from French, from the name for exactly the same kind of riddles. Here's one I found online, by Victor Hugo. (Again, the solution can be found by googling.)

    Mon premier est un métal précieux,

    Mon dernier se trouve dans les cieux,

    Et mon entier est un fruit délicieux.

    And finally, the word "charade" is believed to come from the Occitan word "charrada", meaning "chatter".

  74. Robert Coren said,

    February 3, 2019 @ 10:36 am

    @Peter S.: I was able to solve Hugo's charade at one glance. I had to look up Austen's; yes, surprisingly grim.

  75. Stephen Hart said,

    February 3, 2019 @ 2:01 pm

    Example of said journalism:
    https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/02/superb-owl-see-eyes-closed/

  76. Emily said,

    February 4, 2019 @ 1:07 pm

    I don't think word processors do this as much anymore, but "rouge hyphens" are a related phenomenon: https://www.science-frontiers.com/sf112/sf112p16.htm

    Also Esperanto has a lot of ambiguous compounds:
    http://jbr.me.uk/ranto/hh.html

  77. George said,

    February 6, 2019 @ 6:18 am

    That Jane Austen one is easy enough. And, yes, grim…

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