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Lisa D Agnew

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Snowclones, Mondegreens and the Cupertino Effect
By Lisa D Agnew   
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Last edited: Monday, November 28, 2011
Posted: Monday, November 28, 2011

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What are Snowclones, Mondegreens and the Cupertino Effect? I'll tell you!

As native speakers of the Mother of all languages (an example of a snowclone, see below), it behoves us all to keep abreast of the endless inventiveness spawned by the English lexicon. Snowclones and Modegreens have been around for a long time, yet have only recently been given names of their own. The Cupertino effect was born of the proliferation of computer spell-check functions.

Firstly, the most inventive of the three. A snowclone is a formula-based cliché using an old idiom in a new context – a customisable, instantly recognizable, time-worn quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence. The example from the first paragraph – Mother of all languages – is based on a translation of ‘Uum al M’aarak’, an Iraqi phrase coined by one Saddam Hussein meaning ‘the mother of all wars’.

The term ‘snowclone’ was invented by Glen Whitman in 2004 as a response to a request from Geoffrey Pullum, a Scottish linguist. The term itself is an allusion to a specific instance of the phenomenon –

If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have M words for Y.

- as in -

If Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, Germans have as many for bureaucracy.

The origin of the idea that Eskimos have many and varied names for snow is less obvious. Anthropologist Franz Boas seems to have been the first to make the remark about Eskimos and snow. The same inference was made in Peter Hoeg’s book Smilla's Sense of Snow. It is, however, untrue . The word Eskimo is a generic term and there are many languages spoken by various Eskimo tribes.

Snowclones provide ample scope for description and humour. Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia somewhat belittles the phenomenon by saying that snowclones “can be used in an entirely open array of different jokey variants by lazy journalists and writers.” However, writers will use whatever linguistic tricks are available. The best snowclones can be quite witty, as in –

To boldly split infinitives that no man has split before – originally used by Douglas Adams in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and derived from the introductory voice-over at the beginning of each episode of that American sci-fi classic, Star Trek.

A Blog doth not a journalist make – heading of an article published in The Inquirer in May 2007 and corrupted from Book One of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics – “one swallow does not make a summer, nor does one day.”

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin – title of a classic British comedy series, derived from The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a book by William Shirer, the title of which is, in turn, derived from Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Every time you have a w**k … God kills a kitten – derived from a line in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” – every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings, ultimately via a corrupted quote from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan stating words to the effect that every time a child says they don’t believe in fairies, there is a fairy somewhere who falls down dead.

There are potentially thousands of snowclones out there, derived from books, films and pop culture. The main requirement is that the phrase quickly evolve into a common catchphrase that can be continually varied.

Mondegreen is a slightly older word, dating from the early 1950s, used to describe spoken words or (more usually) lyrics that have been misheard and given a new and original interpretation by the listener. The word itself is a mondegreen, having found life in an essay by American writer Sylvia Wright, who had always been struck by a poem found in Thomas Percy’s ‘Reliques of Ancient Poetry’. The particular short verse in question read –

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands
Oh where have ye been?
They have slain the Earl of Murray
And lain him on the green.

Yet Wright fondly remembered the last two lines as – they have slain the Earl Amurray, and the Lady Mondegreen.

Mondegreens are also a potentially endless source of mirth, especially since the proliferation of the ubiquitous pop songs. As a child, I can remember hearing a popular rendition of the Mexican song ‘Guantanamera’ on the radio and, for a long time afterwards, swore that the name of the piece was ‘One Ton of Mirrors’. Later, I also fell for the common mishearing of the Lord’s Prayer – Our Father who art in Heaven, Harold be thy name.

Beatles’ songs are a rich source of mondegreens, the most famous coming from their hit ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ as the line “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes” is morphed into ‘the girl with colitis goes by’. Desmond Dekker’s song ‘The Israelite’ is choc-o-block full of them, so that the verse – Slaving for bread, sir, so that every mouth can be fed. Poor me, the Israelite – becomes – Sleeping for bread, sir, sold out to every monk and beef head. Oh oh, me ears are alight! The recent Australian film ‘Kenny’ creates a mondegreen of the country’s national anthem. – Australians let us all ring Joyce, for she is young and free.

Columnist Jon Carroll has made the collecting of mondegreens almost his life’s work, and has many hilarious examples sent to him by readers listed at A particular favourite out of the examples was sent in by one Ellen Rosenthal, who longed to be a mungleberry, because she’d heard of all the wonderful things that happen “if you are a mungleberry, young at heart”. This is closely followed by an interpretation of Rick James’ ‘Superfreak’. The original line states that ‘she has incense, wine and candles’. However, correspondent Anne Winterich had two other interpretations – the first of which I must admit I thought was the real line – ‘she has intertwining candles’ or, more salaciously, ‘she has incense in her genitals’.

Secretaries, call centre workers and radio operators also fall prey to the odd mondegreen. A colleague of mine, working for a major newspaper, took an advert over the phone from a customer who wanted to employ a hairdresser who ‘must have own clean towel’. Apparently, the advertiser’s thoughts were not so much on a shortage of sanitary Manchester as of desiring to take on someone who could bring their own clientele to the salon. Another of Carroll’s correspondents states that “a social worker friend of mine was dictating a report in which she mentioned that her client was living with her paramour. It came back from the typist that she was living with her power mower”. Old soldiers everywhere have heard about the radio operator who misinterpreted ‘send re-enforcements – we’re going to advance!’ as ‘send three and four pence – we’re going to a dance!’

And so to the Cupertino Effect. This phenomenon stems from an era when computer spell-check functions were relatively new. Their most famous glitch involved the word co-operation. If the hyphen was omitted, the software would highlight the word and suggest, above all other possibilities, the word Cupertino. If, in haste or uncertainty, the author of the report accepted the recommendation, cooperation became Cupertino. Whilst the error was soon corrected, old documents (especially ones posted on the Internet) such as a proposal from the European Union’s Scientific and Technical Research Committee calling for ‘stimulating cross-border Cupertino’ can still be found.

For those of you who are wondering, Cupertino is a town in northern California and the home of Apple Computers.

Foreign words and phrases are easy prey for the Cupertino effect, as an embarrassed lawyer in California discovered. He had submitted a brief in which the Latin phrase sua sponte (’of one’s own accord’) was used. Unfortunately it had been changed, and made it into the final draft as sea sponge. But the Cupertino effect can also be triggered by the misspelling of a common word. If you leave the first letter off of the word identified, for instance, you run the risk of your spell-checker changing it to denitrified. Another example is aquatinted, which is often suggested by spell-checking programs when a user leaves the c out of the word acquainted. So, if you see a message online asking you to ‘get aquatinted’ you can be reasonably sure that the author is a Cupertino victim and is not urging you to be etched with nitric acid. The Denver Post newspaper famously reviewed one of the ‘Harry Potter’ movies and, in the process, morphed uber-villian Voldemort into Voltmeter.

These days, it’s so easy to have fun with our language. Mondegreens and the Cupertino effect may have started life as genuine mistakes, but they can now be ranked alongside Snowclones as tools for the enjoyment and enrichment of our spoken language.

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