Annals of misreadings: the Cthulhu caper

From linguist Avery Andrews on Facebook:

(#1) Avery: “My first reading of this was ‘Cthulhu Towers’, indicating that whatever the top-down constraints on my linguistic processing may be, real world plausibility has at best a delayed effect”

To judge from my own misreadings — some of them reported on in the Page on this blog with misreading postings — real-world plausibility has virtually no role in initial misreadings; we tend to notice these misreadings, in fact, because they are so bizarre.

On the other hand, they sometimes clearly reflect material currently or persistently on the hearer’s mind — if you’ve been thinking about cooking some pasta for dinner, Italian pasta names are likely to insert themselves into your peceptions; if you’re a gardener, plant names will come readily to mind, even if they’re preposterous; and of course it’s common to see sexual vocabulary where none was intended —  but often they look like the welling-up of material from some deep chthonic place in memory, inexplicably in the context.

Knowledge and experience. But of course you can’t pull up stuff that isn’t there. No one completely innocent of the Lovecraftian world — see below — could possibly come up with Cthulhu for Chillin in Chillin Towel. (At the very least, you must have seen the name some place and remembered it, if only dimly.)

On the other hand, ignorance of or inexperience with an expression in material you’re reading can trigger an excavation into memory that might pull up all sorts of things. I myself, unaware that there was something called a Chillin Towel and having at first no idea what one might be, initially read the expression as Chillun Towel ‘a towel for (US Southern or Black) children’. Kind of silly, but explicable. And then I thought of linguist Chilin Shih at UIUC, though what she might have to do with towels I couldn’t imagine (I did manage to read Towel correctly (while Avery slipped into Towers, for some reason).

Turns out Chillin Towels are an Australian thing; Avery, though born in Pennsylvania and educated in the US, is now an Australian, and might well know about Chillin Towels, but even so, he misread the sign. Meanwhile, he obviously knows about Cthuhu.

Chillin Towels. From the Books & Gifts Direct site (in Australia)

(#2) Keeping her neck cool

The Chillin Towel is a chemical-free cooling towel that comes in [its] own easy carry bottle with a convenient clip right on the top.

… Activating the towel is easy – just wet it, squeeze out the excess moisture and whip or wave the towel to circulate air-flow.

The cutting edge towel will keep cool for hours at a time once wet. To re-activate, all you’ve got to do is wet and whip or wave the towel to provide air-circulation and enjoy the cooling effect!

(One more time: just wet and whip or wave.)

Cthulhu. From Wikipedia:

(#3) One out of thousands of imagined tentacular Cthulhus, by Jason Juta

Cthulhu … is a fictional cosmic entity created by writer H. P. Lovecraft and first introduced in the short story “The Call of Cthulhu”, published in the American pulp magazine Weird Tales in 1928. Considered a Great Old One within the pantheon of Lovecraftian cosmic entities, the creature has since been featured in numerous popular culture references. Lovecraft depicts Cthulhu as a gigantic entity worshipped by cultists. Cthulhu’s appearance is described as looking like an octopus, a dragon, and a caricature of human form. Its name was given to the Lovecraft-inspired universe where it and its fellow entities existed, the Cthulhu Mythos.

Though invented by Lovecraft in 1928, the name Cthulhu is probably derived from the word chthonic, derived from Classical Greek, meaning “subterranean”, as apparently suggested by Lovecraft himself at the end of his 1923 tale “The Rats in the Walls”.

… In “The Call of Cthulhu”, H. P. Lovecraft describes a statue of Cthulhu as “A monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.” Cthulhu has been described in appearance as resembling an octopus, a dragon and a human caricature, hundreds of meters tall, with webbed human-looking arms and legs and a pair of rudimentary wings on its back. Cthulhu’s head is depicted as similar to the entirety of a gigantic octopus, with an unknown number of tentacles surrounding its supposed mouth.

Cthulhu is ghastly and fearsome. But it has a more genial noodly-appendaged cousin, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. See my 7/31/11 posting “Critical thinking”, on the FSM and the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. The idea of Cthulhu and the FSM getting together has attracted several artists, as here:

(#4) On their hook-up, tentacles tentatively entwined, as imagined by Ray Van Tilburg in a t-shirt design for OffWorld Designs

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