"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?

-Robert Browning (Andrea del Sarto; l. 97)


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I struggled with whether to do some sort of column for the one year anniversary. I have things to say, but don't have the courage to deal with the fall out at the moment, so I'm holding off for now. Perhaps next week.


From yesterday, we continue our look at words and symbols, how the fielf of semiotics influences our lives. I appreciate all the emails yesterday suggesting names for the series, which so far is only called "Word Up." Sadly, all the names I got sucked hard core, so I'm still looking. Anyway, enjoy Part II:

The Hyperion Chronicles
“feel free to make a copy of this column”

#408 Words to Live By

We continue from Part I yesterday in our look at cool words and concepts that can enrich our daily lives (or get us some action).

Today’s Agenda:


Irony 2


Alex the Seal
In an attempt to rename my Fantasy Football team something sneakily vulgar, I tried to find this phrase we used back in the old Trivia Days: the kind of phrase that looks one way on paper but when spoken aloud is completely different.

(I was never able to do so, and ended up going with Sofa King Happy. Koz—who remembered the team name, damn him—changed his team name to “If You See Kay Russia….”)

Anyway, while my search was unsuccessful, along the way I discovered another term; much more common and something you’ve all done.


A Mondegreen is when you mis-hear a phrase (usually accidentally). The most common situation where Mondegreens come up is music lyrics.

(In case you’re wondering, Sylvia Wright coined invented the term. As a child her mother read to her poetry. One of her favorites began:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,

Oh, where hae ye been?

They hae slain the Earl Amurray, [sic]

And laid him on the green.

Sylvia heard “They have slain Earl Amurray, and Lady Mondegreen.”

And a name was born.

Every family probably has funny stories about misheard lyrics. My dad is our Mondegreen Maestro. Some of his misheard lyrics are legendary, but as I have been expressly forbidden to share them here, I thought I would talk about some of the more famous.

From the hymns comes Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear (gladly the cross I’d bear)

From the ‘60s comes “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” (Excuse me while I kiss the sky)

And then there was the Go-Gos, who, upon their first tour of Australia were continually stymied when the crowds kept requesting “Alex the Seal.” The group thought it was a local favorite tune, only to discover one day that apparently the entire country was mishearing their hit, “Our Lips Are Sealed.”

Knowing the word that defines mishearing lyrics and other phrases doesn’t make it any easier to hear correctly, but it does give you a great thing to talk about at parties, to impress the ladies. And after all, that’s what semiotics is all about.

My brother claims the honor of coming up with this next one. He didn’t. I thought about it years ago, and I’m sure others have, but he gets so few ideas, I don’t want him to feel bad.

One thing we’re not sure of is what to call it. I was using Secondary Irony, while Achmed wants Selective Dramatic Irony (SDI). My mom came up with Plurany (Plural Irony).

Before you help me decide what to call it, allow me to tell you what I’m talking about.

There’s a great Far Side comic where this cow is sitting on an electric fence, bragging to all his cow friends how it’s no big deal at all. Meanwhile, we see the cows from the farm window, where the farmer is watching with his hand on the Electric Fence Power Switch; currently “off.”

The initial humor is that this young cow thinks he has the world figured out, and he’s due to be seriously disabused of that notion.

The deeper level of humor—what we’re currently arguing about calling it in my house—is that cows are not seriously bothered by electric fences. At most it would be a minor inconvenience. Cows have—and I bet you never thought about it this way—leather hides!

I learned this to be true when I worked on a farm one summer, fixing a downed (but still potent) electric fence. I worried for the cows, and Farmer Bob told me the fences do nothing to the cows, and it is only habit that keeps them penned.

Sure enough, not ten minutes later I saw an enterprising cow go up and touch the fence. Once he realized it wasn’t nothin’ but a thang, he led the cows out into this open field, and we had a mighty fun time chasing them down all afternoon.

Example #2.

My brother used to say “Et Cetera, Et Cetera,” but pronounced it “Et Ketera Et Ketera.” I found out he got this from THE KING AND I. The initial level of humor is laughing at ye olde king, who can’t say the phrase correctly.

The deeper level is that in Latin, Cs are pronounced “hard,” meaning Et Cetera really does sound like Et Ketera. So, the King was pronouncing it correctly, and those who know that not only chuckle at the king, but laugh on the inside at all the audience not realizing the king is indeed correct.

So, there we have our situation. One on level it’s funny, but there’s another deeper level of humor, where we sort of laugh at the people who are unaware of what they are laughing about. What do we call this? I’m open, but until convinced otherwise I’m going with Secondary Irony.

Copy of a Copy of a Copy of a Copy of a Copy....
I think my favorite term right now is Simulacrum. Technically it means a faint (or bad) copy; a copy of a copy. In semiotics, simulacrum has two meanings, both rich in texture well worth knowing.

Definition: #1

Annette Hanshaw was an entertainer, famous for sexy dance routines. Helen Kane came along years later, basically copying what Hanshaw did. The cartoon Betty Boop was based on Helen Kane.

Both Kane and Hanshaw have disappeared from public memory, not a part of popular culture. Betty Boop remains. A copy of a copy, somehow surviving when the originals have faded from the scene.

You think about that for a minute. The original gone and unlamented. Even the copy, the one Betty was based on: you’ve never heard her name before today. But you could pick Betty Boop out of a lineup sure as shootin’, couldn’t you?

Definition #2:

A simulacrum is a copy of something that didn’t exist in the first place. A copy so unlike the original that it changes the meaning and message, perhaps subtly, but substantially.

I play fantasy football. I drafted 21 people from 18 different teams. I get points not only for touchdowns, but for yards run and passed, tackles, fumbles, interceptions, and more. Fantasy football is set up that way so that we can all play a more exciting game, feel a part of it.

Yet fantasy football is a simulacrum. In real life it matters which team scores the most. Yards, tackles, even fumbles: these are important, but don’t directly affect the score. And a team is made up of 60 people, all on one team, in one city, trying to beat another team.

I think people who play fantasy football get caught up in the idea that what we’re doing is real. We’re certainly living vicariously, and yet I’ve noticed my love of football has morphed. If I’m watching a game now my primary interest isn’t in who wins, but how many fantasy points my guys will score. Fantasy Football, though very fun, copies a concept that doesn’t actually exist.

What are other potentially harmful simulacrum? Barbie Dolls. Forget about genitalia: it’s been estimated that if Barbie were a real person she wouldn’t be able to walk. Ah, big deal! It’s not like Barbie dolls are affecting the way girls grow up to look and feel about their own bodies, right?

I’m not saying all simulacrum is evil. We see it all across popular culture. Sci-Fi is full of it: from Cylons to Agent Smith. Even shows like Law & Order and C.S.I. give us a feel like we’re there solving the crime and putting the bad guys away; even though in real life crimes are never solved that way, and lawyers never talk for only two minutes.

Even the Cross is a simulacrum. Roman crosses looked like capital Ts, and the cross of Jesus was almost certainly like this. Yet we commonly understand t to be the accepted cross shape. Is this important? Maybe not, but it is interesting. How much of what we have from history, the symbols and meanings of what we’re sure is real are simulacrum of originals we can never rediscover?

Well, I hope you enjoyed my brief foray into semiotics. If response is high we’ll do it again some time. The important thing to remember is that these concepts aren’t just egghead ways to look at boring life. True: often a definition gives no more than self-awareness, but sometimes that knowledge itself is enough to change how we look at situations. If nothing else hopefully we can begin to see the beauty, power and complexity of human communication. It’s like nothing else on this Earth.

August 29, 2006


tiff said...

I don't want to sound like a kiss-ass, but what the hell - the forays into semiotics is really interesting, and I hope you continue.

Hyperion said...

tiff - will do

Tracy Lynn said...

Me, too, and I would never kiss your ass.

Anonymous said...

...and you KNOW I won't! Thanks for the Mondegreen post -- I have a reputation with my brother and sister for knowing everything and making it up if I don't. My brother SWEARS I made up the whole Mondegreen thing -- even though he is guilty of some of the most heinous ones ever. But that's another post on another day.

tiff said...

sweet! I got an answer from Hyperion! Wooo!


Looking forward to the next installment.