Watching Your Language — Gerunds and the Fantasy Echo

August 27, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Gabriel Rossman has a very funny Twitter thread today detailing the mistakes he found when he reviewed the transcription of his lectures made by UCLA software (Kaltura). One llecture included a reference to the Trojan War and the Greek warrior Diomedes.

Similar human mis-hearings (officially “mondegreens”) are so common in rock music that they fill countless webpages. Many of these mondegreens — e.g., “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy”  — make perfect sense. So does diabetes. They’re just out of place.

But Kaltura also transcribed “emergent from norms of gerontocracy” as “emergent from ruins of gerund talk receipt,” which makes no sense.

But is Kaltura so much more ignorant than the students. How many undergraduates would recognize the name Diomedes? And how many would have a good idea of just what “norms of gerontocracy” are? Or even what a gerontocracy is?

I was reminded of a story from my undergraduate days* — so we’re going way back before transcription software or, to be honest, 8-track tape. The poet Allen Grossman was grading the final exam of his course on (I think) modern poetry, modernism defined as beginning around 1890. In one of the first blue books he read through, he was struck by the phrase “fantasy echo.” What a striking coinage for an undergrad to come up with, and yet it captured the feel of some early modern poetry.

But then the same phrase appeared in the essay of another student and then another. They couldn’t all have separately invented the same unusual metaphor. He thought back over the readings and his lectures. No fantasy echoes there. But then he realized that he had spoken frequently about the fin-de-siècle, and he had given the term his best French pronunciation. I don’t know whether in subsequent semesters he resigned himself to “turn of the century.”

And now I can’t stop think about “ruins of gerund talk receipt.” I hear a fantasy echo of grumbling, of the crumpling of a receipt, strewn on the ground by a language student who has passed the orals, or at least the part on gerunds.

*The story has become something of an urban legend, ascribed to various teachers on various campuses. The OG prof may well be George Mosse, with the phrase cropping up in a history course he taught at the University of Wisconsin in 1964. (See here.) The Brandeis version I heard dates back to roughly the same time, so that’s my narrative (comme on dit), and I’m sticking to it.


David J. Littleboy said...

I was TA-ing freshman metallurgy at an Institute near Boston. The main prof. brought in a Chemical Engineering Prof. to give the few lectures the main prof. wouldn't be able to. Said Chem. Eng. (a young newly minted PhD. from the mid-west unused to the cutthroat Boston/Cambridge culture; that is, a really nice bloke) busted his butt; Metallurgy isn't hard, but it is a new set of ideas and terms, and he messed one up. Martensite became martenstite. I didn't think it worth mentioning to him at the time. Teaching new material is hard work, and he was doing the work. While we were grading the final, the main Prof. lets out a resounding guffaw and yells "One of our students has found a new phase in the iron-carbon phase diagram!" I turned around to said Chem. Eng. (who was sitting directly behind me) and grinned at him as widely as I've ever grinned at anyone. He turned green. (I did not say anything to the main Prof. Dunno if he ever found out.)

Messing up technical terms isn't just for undergraduates.

Dr. Decay said...

One that I can't stop hearing in my head is "All the lonely Starbucks lovers", a mishearing of the Taylor Swift lyric: "Got a long list of ex-lovers". Type it into Google to learn more. Mondegreens are all aver pop culture too.

Jay Livingston said...

That lonely Starbucks lover has become quite well-known (see here for example). Websites like are teeming with song modegreens. It's easy to mishear something when there's interference from instruments or other voices and when the lyrics don't follow natural speaking rules, for example the way Swift stresses "of" in that line.

So it's funnier when people (or transcription software) mishear ordinary speech.