Captain Memo

Mondegreens, Mumbling, and Mis-speech

Examples of good speakers

In the world of public speaking and narration, not everybody can be a Mike Rowe or Max Raphael.

1) Mike Rowe does the distinct and recognizable narrative for many Discovery Channel shows. His speaking style is characterized by clearly enunciated and animated dialog. It always captures audience interest and attention, but never comes across as forced or artificial. Occasionally, Rowe has done specials for the History Channel as well. He also became a spokesperson for Ford Motors about a year ago. His latest assignment seems to be the science show How The Universe Works. At first, this might seem to be outside the range of his more folksy shows. Rowe doesn’t seem to have any special training in science, astronomy or the cosmos, as do Alex Filippenko and Neil deGrasse Tyson (Nova). But Rowe’s Universe show is technically competent and quite compelling.

Rowe is, of course, best known for his Dirty Jobs show and Deadliest Catch narration.

2) Max Raphael has an equally crisp, and clearly articulated narrative delivery. Though he may not carry the branded recognition factor of Rowe, his narrative literally “makes” many of the more factually-oriented History Channel shows, such as Modern Marvels.

In fact, a Google search shows I’m not the only viewer who imagined the voices of Mike Rowe and Max Raphael were one and the same!

Both speakers are a distinct pleasure to listen to. By way of contrast, most of the rest of us are a nation of mumblers – “say again, please?” I’m not claiming personal membership in the more elevated speakers’ plateau, as I’ll disclose at the end of this post.

In this world of spoken dialog, it’s not always what the speaker says: it’s what the listener thinks they hear.


We’ve posted on this topic before. The columnist Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle put together a massive compendium of Mondegreen mis-hearings.

Years ago in our Humor department, I posted “And into the hole he gooooes”  – what one kid heard in the phrase “father, son and the holy ghost”. You can also read up on Mondegreens at Wikipedia – what we heard is not necessarily what they said!

I keep a coffee-table log of notable TV “bloopers”. It’s taken a month to log five entries, so I’m posting them now (but may add to the list later). Sometimes words are simply mis-spoken. Sometimes, they are mumbled and heard as “something else”!

1. “nucular”, for nuclear: History Channel, on failed inventions, “nuclear rifle”. First popularized by a recent two-term U.S. President.

2. “mangible”, for manageable: TV ad for document management

3. “physical reform” for fiscal reform: AZ PBS channel 8 debate, among Libertarian candidates

4. “fecal” for vehicle: TV ad: “Cadillac Escalade is the most important fecal of the year”.

5. “measle thelioma” for mesothelioma: I could swear I heard this on one of the legal service ads for this rare form of cancer. But I can’t find the ad again. Read on!

Captain Memo

Just to prove I’m not exempt: old listening habits are hard to break. I heard “measle thelioma” on TV, but there could be another explanation we haven’t discussed.

This form of mis-pronunciation depends on the fact that many of us read a profusion of words we never hear spoken authoritatively . As a consequence, instead of heading for the dictionary, we make “best guesses” on how we think the word should be pronounced. I’ve been burned by that bad habit many times! In support of this thesis, I offer the following personal anecdote.

In the ’70’s and ’80’s I was close friends with a jolly green giant named John Prather. (John C. Prather, where are you?)

In those days, we used to have frequent late-night “chautauquas”. In our case, these were rambles on philosophical discourse and inquiry, liberally mixed with scotch and what have you. John scored an excellent debating rebuttal to one of my points. I sarcastically declared that I would “take a memo”.

And I pronounced it “meemo“.

“What did you say?”

“Meemo. I’ve always pronounced it that way!” It was one of those words that doesn’t rhyme with “Nemo” of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea fame.

And we looked it up in the dictionary :”mem-oh”. Colloquial for “memorandum”. Sorry, there’s no alternate pronunciation. I was proved an idiot!

From that day on, I was dubbed “Captain Meemo”.

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