I was in a bookshop and I said to the assistant, "Excuse me, what's this 'psycho the rapist' section?". She said, "It's pronounced 'psychotherapist'."
— Jimmy Carr
Some names and titles are stored in a way that is not case-sensitive, but doesn't allow spaces to separate words. So how do you tell one word apart from the next? If you're not careful, you can wind up with names that are quite... odd. Thus, this trope.
Differs from Scunthorpe Problem in that the Scunthorpe Problem is about computers making these mistakes before humans can see them; this is about humans making these mistakes because other humans didn't catch them earlier.
Compare Mondegreen, which applies to spoken language rather than written language.
See this page for the hilarity that could arise from trope names. Also known as scripta continua.
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Anime and Manga
A variation appears in Yu Yu Hakusho. Kuwabara, Hiei, Botan and Kurama are facing Kaito, who can make it so that if anyone, even himself, says a specific word- "Hot" at the moment- their soul will be sucked out of their body. When Botan goes for a drink, Kuwabara asks if they can share it with "eachother" and loses his soul even though he didn't specifically say "Hot" (in the manga, he asks for "two shots" of orange juice). Kaito points out that he has no control over how his powers are applied, and simply saying the syllables for "hot" is enough regardless of context.
A variation of this trope is Older Than Television. By convention, comic book lettering is usually all-caps. Due to the vagaries of hand-lettering and smudgy printing, letters can often run together. In particular, a capital L next to a capital I can end up looking like the single letter U. Thus, perfectly innocent words like CLINT and FLICK, when printed in a comic book, can wind up looking like certainfour-letter words. (Nowadays, comic books use proper case in dialogue thanks to the advent of computer fonts and automatic spell- and grammar-checking, which eliminates potential gaffes.)
Longtime Editor Julius Schwartz mentioned avoiding the use of those words in his autobiography, but the notion that they were forbidden by "official policy" (as opposed to Rule of Cautious Editing Judgement) seems to be untrue.
The name Clint, does, in fact, turn up in comics, sometimes fairly prominently, as with Marvel's Hawkeye (aka Clint Barton.)
Millie the Model's photographer and boyfriend had a name change, from "Flicker" to "Clicker," possibly because of this trope. (Alternatively, it may have simply been that "Clicker" sounds like a better nickname for a photographer.)
Fables spinoff "Jack of Fables" would sometimes be listed in Previews as "JACKOFFABLES".
The Clint version shows up in Bring Me the Head of Mavis Davis, courtesy of Clint the assassin.
In Election, Reese Witherspoon's character, Tracy Flick, makes cupcakes with her last name (FLICK) written on them in icing. So this fits, because she was FLICK-ing a teacher at the beginning of the film.
There's actually a joke involving that: "I take the 'the' out of psychotherapist."
In the third Foundation novel by Isaac Asimov, there was a school with a policy of having students sign their reports by first initial followed by last name. This rule was given an exception in the case of a young Olynthus Dam.
Similarly, the protagonist of the Iain Banks novel Espedair Street was one Daniel Weir; listed in the school register by surname followed by first initial.
The planet Hellspark in the novel of the same name by Janet Kagan was named based on this principle as a statement on the mutability of language. The natives purposefully alternate between pronouncing their planet "Hell spark" and "Hell's park".
In Stephenson's Quicksilver, King Charles II ennobled Knott Bolstrood when naming him Secretary of State. He was granted the title "Count of Penistone" note rhymes with Pennisten mostly because that would force him to write "penis" whenever he signed his name.
Live Action TV
Played with multiple times on Saturday Night Live's "Celebrity Jeopardy!" sketches, although it's strongly implied that Sean Connerynote played by Darrell Hammond was just being a dick as it's somewhat hard to read "An Album Cover" as "Anal Bum Cover". Other examples from those sketches are "The Pen Is Mightier", read by Connery as "The Penis Mightier"; "S Words", which was read as "Swords"; "Catch The Semen" for "Catch These Men"; "Jap Anus Relations", for "Japan-US Relations", "Famous Titles" as "Famous Titties", Foreign Flicks as "Foreign Fucks" due to the way the font looked (Connery said "I was thinking of foreign ladies I snogged"); and even the above "Therapists" example. Burt Reynolds also once pronounced "a petit déjeuner" as "ape tit", with the usual results.
In most cases Alex Trebek (Will Ferrell) would correct Connery's mispronouncing by saying (for instance) "That's 'Therapists', not 'The Rapists',"...except for the "Foreign Flicks" case (where he just emphasized that it's "Foreign Flicks"). The fact that it's foreign ladies that he's snogged suggests that Connery was reading it as "Foreign Fucks" (with the L and I so close together as to be mistaken for a U), which couldn't be explicitly said on SNL as it is over-the-air on NBC.
There is a The Benny Hill Show sketch where Benny Hill is a sign painter and he's painting a door for a therapist, and he paints "JOHN SMITH, THE RAPIST" instead of "JOHN SMITH, THERAPIST".
In a similar Red Skelton sketch, Red was supposed to be arranging letters on a movie marquee to read "IMA JACK AS SINBAD." A beautiful girl came by, Red stopped watching what he was doing, and it ended up as "IM A JACKASS."
Buster: (gasps as he reads the card) Tobias: "Don't worry, it isn't pronounced like that." Buster: "It isn't the pronunciation I was worried about."
In season 4, it's revealed that Tobias's license plate reads "ANUSTART", as he is hoping to get A NU START. On the other hand, after being in prison, he finally realized to some degree how he comes off and instead changes his title to "theralyst"
QI presented four of the websites listed below whorepresents, expertsexchange, powergenitalia, and penisland - the panellists were given the websites and had to work out what they were really meant to be.
In one Three's Company, Janet thinks Jack's girlfriend is a prostitute, but she's actually a psychologist. The confusion culminates in Janet reading the woman's business card as "The rapist!"
Used to great effect in the short-lived TV show, Miracles, where a message is repeatedly found scrawled near the site of unexplained events reading "GODISNOWHERE", leading to an in-universe conflict of interpretations.
This has shown up on actual church billboards, followed by "(read it again)", which doesn't guarantee a different interpretation, especially if you're driving past it.
Used on Lowdown with a subeditor asking Alex if Brad Pitt has actually been convicted of rape when an unfortunate line break changes "Brad Pitt's therapist" to "Brad Pitt's the rapist".
The broad, white, all-caps, sans-serif credits font used in Barney Miller was not kind to writer Theodore J. Flicker.
In one episode of Raines, the eponymous character claims he read Dr. Kohl's card as "The Rapist" instead of "Therapist".
In an episode of The Golden Girls spinoff ''The Golden Palace", the girls ordered personalised pens with the phrase "pen is compliments of The Golden Palace". The guy left out the space between "pen" and "is".
Customer: Is this some sort of come-on?
Done on Top Gear with writing logos on car doors in such a way that they look like something else when the door is opened. Namely "Larsen's Biscuits", "Penistone Oils", "Amerdea du fromage, ("Merde du fromage" is roughly French for "shit of cheese", but the idiomatic meaning is closer to "bloody cheese"), "C'est les bien chat!", "Sophartel Industrie", Restaurant petit entree" and Coq joli yaourt auxfruits" (roughly "cock yoghurt and nice fruits). Another episode used train separating to make "The United Kingdom promotes British IT for your company" and "Eat English muffins".
Covers of the British SF/Fantasy magazine SFX often are examples (perhaps deliberately invoked) of this trope. When a cover subject's photo is placed in front of the magazine's logo, it looks like the magazine's logo might actually be SEX. One letter to the editor informed the magazine that a picture of Chris Evans as Captain America: The First Avenger on the cover and having the 'F' obscured led to that issue being put with the "gay interest" magazines in his local newsagents.
Also in Britain, a run-of-the-mill bog-standard women's magazine was called Closer by its publishers. Given that on at least one occasion, the capital "C" of "Closer" has been obscured by elements of the cover design or lead picture, this might have been a naming error..
A label on a Bob Dylan LP once (in violation of standard typesetting) broke the title "Mr. Tambourine Man" across two lines as "MR. TAMBO- / URINE MAN". This provided the inspiration for a line in They Might Be Giants' song "Weep Day": "It's samba time for Tambo and weep day for Urine Man."
Susan Boyle celebrated the release of her new album with the Twitter hashtag #susanalbumparty.
The most famous example is possibly a collection of URLs that were found to be... failures in some way. Try to figure out what they are before highlighting the spoiler:
A Dutch example: one internet company tried to promote switching from any other company to them. Their slogan: "Overstappen is niet eng" ("Switching isn't scary"). Their URL: www.overstappenisnieteng.nl, which with the words squashed together can and will be read as "Overstap penis niet eng" ("Switch to penis not scary"). It took them a few months to catch on, after which they very quickly changed their ads and URL.
Baseball-Reference.com, a very popular database of baseball players and their statistics, lists players by the first five letters of their last name and the first two letters of their first name. No problem, except for Boston Red Sox star Kevin Youkilis. The result: YoukiKe. Yeah. They changed his entry real quick.
to YouklKe, which isn't much better.
Particularly unfortunate because Youkilis is Jewish.
A Turkish designer named Adil Işık has a clothing line named after him. Of course the website would be "Adil Işık" followed by ".com". However, Turkish letters can cause trouble in URLs, so it's written as adilisik.com instead...and "Adil'i sik" means "Fuck Adil".(Not as in "Man, fuck that guy.", but as in sexually violate him.)
America Online's font in the early 90's made lower-case "m" almost indistinguishable from lower-case "r" and "n" together ("rn"), giving fuel to early Internet Trolls to create fake names to "post as" anyone who had the misfortune of merely having a lower-case "m" in their username. For instance "Mama" could be copied as "Marna" and look exactly the same - even if you looked closely.
The day of the death of Margaret Thatcher, one of the first hashtags to spring up on Twitter was #nowthatchersdead, created by a website critical of Thatcher. This spurred confusion among Cher fans, mostly Americans, who read it as “Now that Cher’s dead.” Soon other Twitter users, including comedian Ricky Gervais, started mocking these panicked fans.
Mrs Edna Fry's second book, How To Have An Almost Perfect Marriage is frequently plugged on Twitter with the hashtag #HowToHaveAnAlmostPerfectMarriage. She has occasionally "accidentally" rendered this as #HowToHaveAnalMostPerfectMarriage.
With Hurricane Sandy, CBS was promoting their group "CBS Cares". They averted the obvious "CB scares" by having the www.cbscares.com redirect to their website page which used an underscore for a space "cbs_cares".
Regretsy has pointed out an Etsy store called scarfarts - they sell scarves, so it's meant to be read as "Scarf Arts", not "Scar Farts".
The original Metroid had the Classic Cheat Code NARPAS SWORD. It doesn't stand for any particular sword, but rather "NAR Password" - the space was due to how the password input worked. There are various theories as to what NAR means, including "North American Release" and "Not A Real".
Gabe Newell's email is 'firstname.lastname@example.org'. While not very conspicuous in text, it provides a fun soundbite when Gabe himself reads it in-game. Apparently, he is not too fond of this, opting for the letter-by-letter approach in later commentaries. This just made it worse.
Like the "Flicker" example everywhere, Armored Core 4 and for Answer features a part called 09-FLICKER, which is a flashbang in rocket form. Pretty appropriate in both forms, as getting hit removes your ability to lock on to enemies for a certain time, and with mechs typically moving at blinding speeds, as well as the NPC enemies who do equip them are known to be That One Boss, you are seriously boned.
In Homestuck, Rose's Chumhandle is "tentacleTherapist". While it has not led to an actual confusion, it's most certainly a nod to this.
In DMFA, this comic caused a bit of comical reaction in the forms when it came out over amber's choice of sound effect. Apparently, "click" is another word you have to be careful around with some lower-case fonts.
In the twenty-third Eddsworld comic, Edd and Matt walk into a building marked "Therapists." After a beat panel, they walk out, with Edd commenting that "They really should make the space between "e" and "r" bigger..." Yeah, they were raped.
In Battle for Dream Island, Pen states that if he were to win Dream Island, he would name it "Pen Island, no spaces, all caps!" He probably doesn't realize it, but he's naming it PENISLAND.
Programmers tend to abbreviate things in their code. This combined with the subject matter makes it possible to find combinations of letters and digits that look identical in certain fonts. Which can become quite the mess given that computers are fully ok with having both a variable called CLINT and one called CUNT that may be used for nearly the same thing.
Apache Maven (a build manager for Java projects) uses a file called pom.xml (not porn.xml) for configuration.
"No, no, I'm not a therapist. I'm The Rapist. A lot of people make that mistake."
Yes, Pen Island is real!. There are actually two Pen islands: East and West Pen island. They are part of several uninhabited Canadian arctic islands in Nunavut, Canada. West Pen Island is actually a spit, rather than an island. East Pen Island is situated off the shore of Ontario, a few kilometers southeast of Manitoba.
There is a certain French Connection shop at Heathrow Airport, which has its email address written in big block letters: FC.UK
French Connection lives and breathes entirely on this trope. Christmas campaign? 'fcuk christmas'. Denim range? 'fcuk denim'. It's clearly the best thing about the shop.
In 1999, French Connection sued Conservative Future UK for rebranding themselves CFUK, claiming a copyright on the letters FCUK "in any order..."
Once upon a time, there was a suite of educational software called "ViaGrafix". Cue many school bookkeepers wondering why they were being billed for something called "Viagrafix".
Dord was listed as a synonym for density for a few years in Merriam-Webster's New International Dictionary. When an editor tried to find the etymology of the word, he couldn't find any evidence that "dord" was actually a word. It eventually transpired that the source of "dord" was a slip of paper, reading "D or d: cont./density", which was intended for the entries for upper and lowercase 'd'. This phantom word propagated across dictionaries for a few years afterwards.
The band name ALEXISONFIRE can be read in about ten different ways, depending on punctuation or spacing between letters.
Actor/comedian Donald Glover's twitter account used to be donglover (mentioned here).
ABC Amber LIT Converter is abbreviated in the url as "abclit."
On the Stanley Cup, 1944 Toronto Maple Leafs Assistant Manager Frank Selke (yes, that Selke), is listed as simply "F.J. Selke (Ass Man)"
Of legendary status in Germany is the story of a book its author wanted to call "Der Urinstinkt" (The primal instinct). The publisher objected to this because of the similarity to "Der Urin stinkt" (The urine stinks).
Similarily, Duschlampe (shower lamp) and Du Schlampe (you bitch).
There's a Guitar Hero band on ScoreHero called Pen And The Islands, in tribute to this trope.
This can be an issue in solving crossword puzzles since once has to guess the number of words in the answer. And even with the right number of words, guessing where one ends can be difficult.
An odd form of Damn You, Muscle Memory which led to this trope popping up happened when users used to the file name limits of MS-DOS (and by extension, Windows 1.0 through 3.11) switched to using Windows 95 and later. They'd first keep naming their files as if they were still on the older operating system, then gradually stop abbreviating words in the file name, but still not use spaces, before finally using the long file names the way they were intended. The middle stage is where this trope cropped up. For example, a Doctor Who reference image might be named "doctorwhoref.png", and while the user might not notice anything odd about it, when they email it to someone to use as reference material, they're likely to get a snarky comment about the file name when they next hear from the recipient.
Use of spaces in filenames remains awkward on command-line UNIX systems, keeping this problem around, though CamelCase or underscores_as_spaces or dashes-as-spaces can be used to avert it.
One shop which fronts onto London Road in West Croydon used to be a video rental store called Flickers, and it had a painted advert on its rear wall (above the railway tracks) which can still be seen from Tamworth Road. It can be very startling when one sees it for the first time, and mistakes the LI for a U...
It still isn't commonly used in many Asian languages, such as Japanese, so for a new learner of the language who can only write in kana, you can often end up with strings of phrases that, without kanji to identify the specific meaning, could have any number of wildly varying meanings.
Meanwhile, Japanese often places diacritics in between Katakana words, i.e. those imported from other languages, leading to confusion for new learners, i.e. "I can understand the sounds, but what do the dots mean?".
The Urban Legend of the Chevy Nova's alleged failure in Latin America hinges on this; the claim is that since "no va" is Spanish for "it doesn't go", people didn't want to buy a car with that name. While the idea that customers would automatically conflate one word with two is absurd enough, where this fits the trope is the fact that "nova" itself is a word in Spanish. (Not to mention that, if you were to say "my car won't go", you'd say no funciona or no marcha, not no va.)
Not to mention no va (depending of the dialect) normally means It's doesn't combine or it doesn't mix.
In Brazil there's a brand of baby diapers called "Pom-Pom"◊, and the font used doesn't help. It is at least awkward enough for English-speakers, since in Portuguese, "pornografia" is abbreviated "pornô".
There's a real shop called "Kidsexchange".
While not quite as potentially creepy, there's also a Kids Haven. If you just glimpse it as driving past, it can seem odd.
Where a lot of the hilarity comes from in playing Mad Gab.
Under certain fonts, the word "click" actually looks like "dick".
Deliberately evoked (and subverted) by the Denver-based evangelical organization GODISNOWHERE. They've had a booth at the Capitol Hill People's Fair and the Taste of Colorado in Denver for well over a decade, and they count on atheists reading the phrase as "God is Nowhere," and then attempt to evangelize them when they come visiting what they think are like-minded individuals. People at the real atheist booth do their best to warn newcomers about this.
An entry in Uncle John's Bathroom Reader referenced an obscure snack named HITS with this problem. The word stretched from the left edge of the packaging to the right, so when there were many side-by-side it read HITSHITSHITSHITSHITS. Similar graphic design problems arise in music magazines aimed at teens interested in the current charts.
The video store MEGAFLICKS◊ probably should have been more careful with their font choice.
The "Men's Wear" department in clothing stores is close to "Men swear". Target will even put it up as one word.
Averting the Asimov example in the literature section, a now defunct British telecoms company gave their employees computer user names consisting of their surname followed by their initials. They did not deviate from this with K.S.Wan. This was particularly noticeable because computer printouts always featured the owner's user ID in enormous letters.
Is PetSmart where you learn to pet intelligently or a mart where pets can buy things?
Because many companies use the "first initial, last name" setup, as joked about in the Dilbert strip mentioned above, it can lead so some issues with names that are traditionally common in one part of the world but are less so with immigration. Examples include.
Maho: innocent enough unless a person happens to be names Ivan or Irene.
Others of note: B. Lowman, U. Ho, T. Watkins, F. Uckermann, "Y. Oda".
Fairly common in Swedish thanks to people forgetting the rule that compound words have to be written as one word. Some classic examples include "Rökfritt" (No smoking) being written as "Rök fritt" (Smoke freely), "Djupfryst kycklinglever" (frozen chicken liver) as "Djup fryst kyckling lever" (profound frozen chicken lives), "Kassamedarbetare sökes" (tellers wanted) as "Kassa medarbetare sökes" (crappy co-workers wanted) or "brunhårig sjuksköterska" (brunette nurse) as "brun hårig sjuk sköterska" (brown hairy sickly caretaker).
Without the period, actress Vivica A. Fox's name could be said as Vivica, a fox.
This page has several cases where an incorrect font changes one or two letters. Of note is Final Fantasy (specifically, Final Fantasy Tactics), where the first two letters change the whole meaning of the game.
Susan Boyle celebrated the release of her new album with the Twitter hashtag #susanalbumparty.
Comedian Billy Connolly relates travelling by now defunct American air carrier Trans-World airlines. A stewardess, who had evidently been taught this by rote, smiled and asked "Sir, would you like some of our T.W.A. coffee?" Without missing a beat, Connolly smiled back and said "No thanks, miss. But I'd really love to dip my tongue into your T.W.A. tea." The stewardess missed the joke entirely and Connolly got his cup of tea...
British TV personality and sports commentator Stuart Hall decided to invest in a travel agent's shop bearing his name. Unfortunately the stationery had all been printed and the shop sign readied to go up before somebody noticed the thing with Stuart Hall International Travel.
After former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died, the Twitter Hashtag #nowthatcherisdead was read alternatively as "Now Thatcher is Dead" and "Now That Cher is Dead".
There is a person on YouTube with the account name Micioonthet, who once had to make a video explaining that his name is supposed to be read as "Micio on the T" and not "Micioon Thet".
Stephen Fry's (since taken down) video celebrating his millionth follower on Twitter poked fun at this, with the premise being that Stephen was portraying a robot from the future who had been "erotically cloned" from Stephen, and who pronounces Stephen's name as "Step-Hen Fry".
A Flash game titled What You See (Is What You Let to Be Seen) has a variation of this as one of it's puzzles. In one level, you decode a secret message that spells out "notear", which could either be read as "not ear" or "no tear". The next level says "not about ears, not to tear anything", which reveals that the message is neither of those things. It's actually an anagram of "rate on".