Your Word of the Day: Kerning

Kerning refers to the process of adjusting the space between letters in typesetting and graphic design.

The word originally comes from the French carne, meaning projecting angle or quill of a pen. In the days of manual typesetting, letters were placed on individual metal blocks known as glyphs. If a letter overlapped the following letter (e.g. a capital T before a capital A), the overlapping parts (the bars of the T), would protrude over the edge of the glyph, and these exposed parts of the letter were known as kerns.

You might not think kerning is important, especially because most digital text is automatically kerned for your pleasure. Here’s a nice example from Wikipedia of the benefits of kerning:

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The Funniest Words in the World?

What makes something funny? Feel free not to even try to answer that, because obviously humour, like an earthworm in a snowstorm, is hard to pin down. Some suggest it’s based on minor transgressions, the release of tension, or shedding new light on things we take for granted.  Of course, all of this depends on context and a wide number of variables, and is still going to be subjective even then. If we look at which individual words we tend to find funny though, there aren’t so many variables to consider, and we might be able to find out why they’re funny.

I’m thinking about this because researchers at the University of Warwick conducted a study of what the funniest words in the English language are. They did this by choosing a random sample of 5,000 words, and the asking 800 people to rate them for humour from 1 (unfunny) to 5 (hilarious). Here’s what they came up with, starting with the funniest:

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Lady Mondegreen

Ireland’s industry

There’s a bathroom on the right

Excuse while I kiss this guy

What do these statements have in common? They’re all mondegreens. What’s a mondegreen, you ask? Let me show you…

Ireland’s industry – Islands in the stream (Islands in the Stream, Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers)

There’s a bathroom on the right – There’s a bad moon on the rise (Bad Moon Rising, Creedence Clearwater Revival)

Excuse me while I kiss this guy – Excuse me While I Kiss the Sky (Purple Haze, Jimi Hendrix)

A mondegreen is a misheard song lyric. The unusual-sounding word was coined by American writer Sylvia Wright in 1954 when she wrote about how she misheard the line …and laid him on the green from the 17th-century Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl of Moray” as …and Lady Mondegreen.

I’m quite fond of mondegreens, simply because they can be very funny, but they’re also a great leveller. No matter your mastery of the English language, the rhythms of song lyrics and the accompanying make it often quite hard to heard lines correctly. Plus, we tend to expect language to follow familiar patterns, so it makes more sense to our brains to kiss a guy than kiss the sky. (It’s also only fair to point out that in normal conversational connected speech, Excuse me while I kiss this guy and Excuse me while I kiss the sky sound identical.)

We all have our own mondegreens. The one I always remember from my youth is Prefab Sprout’s “The King of Rock n’ Roll.” I always thought the line Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque was actually Hot dog, jump in fire, how about turkey? Which I think works equally well. I also thought the Transformers jingle proclaimed them to be robots in the skies, as opposed to in disguise. It never made sense to me, because only some of them could fly.

I was surprised to discover that the most-commonly misheard line, according to a British survey was Call me if you try to wake her up from R.E.M’s “Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” which people mishear as Calling Jamaica. It kind of fits I suppose, but you really need to stretch it! I would have thought Haddaway’s “What is Love” (When You Don’t Hurt Me instead of Baby Don’t Hurt Me) would be more common, or Abba’s “Waterloo” (How does it feel to have won the war? instead of I was defeated, you won the war).

What are some of your mondegreens?