News for penguins: the misread petrel

Passed along on Facebook recently, a BBC One clip from 12/13/18, with this header:


I read the header before I looked down at the scene. And what I read was:

Emperor penguin chicks take on a giant pretzel

I found this mightily puzzling. The Giant Pretzels of the Antarctic? Then I saw the petrel.

The birds. The whole clip can be viewed here. A clutch of emperor penguin chicks stand together to repel a ravenous petrel, and then an Adélie penguin comes onto the scene to lead them in driving the predator away. From Wikipedia on giant petrels of the genus Macronectes:

Petrels are highly opportunistic feeders. They are extremely aggressive and will kill other seabirds (usually penguin chicks, sick or injured adult penguins and the chicks of other seabirds), even those as large as an albatross, which they kill either by battering them to death or drowning.

The words. As much as expectations, background knowledge, context, and real-world plausibility play a role in guiding the processing of language, low-level patterns can sometimes maintain control of things. And at that level, PETREL and PRETZEL overlap hugely (in pronunciation as well as orthography), so that one could be taken for the other:


The actual printed word is PETREL, a word most of us encounter infrequently; PRETZEL, however, is a familiar, everyday word, and might well muscle in on PETREL. For a moment. Until you think about penguins and pretzels. And look at the photo.

3 Responses to “News for penguins: the misread petrel”

  1. Stewart Kramer Says:

    A trick question: What color is a magenta petrel? Black and white and brownish-grey all over, like a typical seabird. The bird was named for the Italian ship. The ship and the color were both named for the battle.

  2. chryss Says:

    Petrels are called Sturmvögel in German. Storm birds. Giant petrel = Riesensturmvogel. ObNothingInParticular.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Oh, but it’s wonderful: “Riesensturmvogel” is like a thousand times more terrifying than “giant petrel” (for me, the modifier “giant” evokes mere bigness, not actual giants; while the Gm “Riesen” evokes huge monstrous creatures). Vicious birds, opponents of the equally vicious skuas, *and they both devour penguin chicks*.

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