Nathanael Green's Blog

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Thesis Snow Aye Twos Tart Able Log

with 11 comments

Back in college, we used to play an amazing game at parties. This game was Mad Gab. And it can be hilarious and frustrating … especially after a few drinks.

For those of you unfamiliar with this little orange box of mind-gnarling cards, Mad Gab is a game for at least two players, usually more, broken into teams. You flash a card, and one team reads the words on it aloud and tries to guess what it says.

The trick is that each card has a bunch of recognizable words already on it, but when they’re spoken together, they’ll form another word or phrase that isn’t immediately clear. For example, a card might read:

Eighty Fin Sat Earn He


Bed Chirp Autumn Doll Her

(Go ahead. Read them aloud. They don’t work subvocally.)

So the team has to recognize the sounds as “a defense attorney” and “bet your bottom dollar.”

Why it’s fun

Mad Gab works because as we read the puzzle and try to reassemble it, our mind attaches to the words we see in that order. Even as we’re pronouncing the (usually) correct phonemes, or individual sounds, our brains get stuck on what we see, not on what we hear.

And that means that the team not guessing gets to laugh at you while you stammer over a very common phrase while you sound like you’ve got dysprosody and look like you’re four-days stopped up.

(Stop laughing … lots of people play linguistic drinking games!)

This little gem has got a linguistic term.

Mad Gab creates a puzzle out of mondegreens, which basically is a misinterpretation of a phrase. It’s pretty common, though almost no one knows the formal name (unless you get the Word of The Day from For example, here are a few famous mondegreens:

  • ’Scuse me while I kiss this guy (From Jimi Hendrix’s “Excuse me while I kiss the sky.”)
  • There’s a bathroom on the right (Credence Clearwater Revival’s “There’s a bad moon on the rise”)
  • The ants are my friends … (Bob Dylan’s “The answer, my friends …”)

Matt Groening created an animated special apparently inspired by mondegreens with Olive, the Other Reindeer (You can see where that one came from, right?) that included characters with names like Round John Virgin (think of “Silent Night”) and Richard Stands (say the American Pledge of Allegiance).

Mad Gab takes advantage of reverse mondegreens. It starts with nonsense and asks you to puzzle out what it really means. Much like the song “Mairzy Doats.”

Mondegreen is a mondegreen

There’s an old Scottish ballad called “The Bonny Earl O’Moray” that goes:

Ye Highlands and ye Lawlands,

Oh where have you been?

They have slain the Earl O’ Moray

And layd him on the green.

According to, American writer Sylvia Wright interpreted the last line as “And Lady Mondegreen,” and then coined the phrase in an essay published in Harper’s Magazine.

Another funny thing about Mad Gab

It doesn’t always work with different accents. Once, when playing with an Australian friend, he was given the puzzle:

Urine Ex Ton Mile Hissed*

Much to his frustration, he simply could not guess the right answer. But that’s because apparently in Melbourne, urine is pronounced “yur-INE” and not “YUR-in.”

Made all the difference in the world.


So, if you’ve got a minute, check out Mad Gab for yourself. It’s fun at parties, but you can also play online here.

Then, if you’ve got another minute, let me know in the comments what other mondegreens you’ve found.

*You’re next on my list.

Written by Nathanael Green

February 10, 2010 at 11:57 am

11 Responses

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  1. San Francisco columnist Herb Caen was a big fan of mondegreens, and one of the current columnists, Jon Carroll, still occasionally includes them.

    I love mishearings or misreadings. Happens a lot in a bookstore, understandably.

    This may be a bit off point, but I once was talking to a woman on the phone who wanted me to hold a book for her. I asked for her name, and she told me. You sort of have to understand that in Santa Cruz, a lot of people have renamed themselves, and though sometimes their new names sound a bit bizarre, you can’t laugh at what they’ve chosen. So I said, with the utmost composure and sincerity, “Okay, so I’ll hold that till Tuesday for McTricycle?”

    There was a long pause on the other end of the line and then the woman said, “Well, I’ve never heard that before. It’s McDriscoll.”

    Can’t blame a gal for trying to be attuned to her community. Although unfortunately, it appears you can.


    February 18, 2010 at 1:26 am

    • When I tell people my name, they’ll occasionally hear it as “Dave” instead of “Nate.” So I’ve tried to enunciate a little more clearly.

      Now, though, I’m a little sad because I could totally get behind it if people thought my name were McTricycle!

      Nathanael Green

      February 19, 2010 at 9:33 pm

  2. It was funny, because I made all these deductions so fast–there is a Buddhist magazine called Tricycle–I have no idea why–and as half of Santa Cruz seems to be Buddhist, it made perfect sense to me (in the moment) that some Buddhist would reimagine themselves that way.

    Thinking a little too fast for my own good, in this case.


    February 19, 2010 at 11:05 pm

  3. This is great news. So you’re telling me when all those people at work call me a–hole, they’re really just trying to say Brian.

    I can sleep a lot easier now.

    Brian O'Rourke

    March 1, 2010 at 4:33 pm

  4. By the way, it took me a long time to figure out the pronunciation for the title of this post. That’s because I was pronouncing “Aye” like a sailor would, as in “Aye, aye, Captain.”

    Brian O'Rourke

    March 1, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    • I faced the same hurdle, Brian. Good thing for our reputations here that we got over it.


      March 1, 2010 at 10:13 pm

      • This is apparently why I do not work for Mad Gab.

        Perhaps pronouncing “aye” like you say, Brian, simply gives the title a slight Australian accent?

        Nathanael Green

        March 1, 2010 at 11:42 pm

  5. Yes, I believe you could probably get a job at Mad Gab’s Sydney branch.


    March 1, 2010 at 11:49 pm

  6. Nate, I did not know about your “Dave” situation. I have a similar problem. When I introduce myself, I often say “Hi. I’m Nick.” Lots of people think my name is Mick, because the “N” gets lost in the shuffle.

    Maybe that’s where I got my nickname, Uncle Mick.

    Er, my mickname. Mickmame.

    I’ma go play Mad Gab now.

    G’day, Mate.

    Nick Hughes

    March 10, 2010 at 9:49 pm

  7. Actually, now you mention it, I am pretty prepared when I hear “Donna Brown” called in a restaurant to consider that that might actually be me.

    Mickmame. I like that.


    March 10, 2010 at 10:39 pm

  8. so i realize you posted this a long time ago. I’m interested in using Mad Gab in an English as a Second Language Classroom.

    Do you have any more insights on Mad Gab, or have you ever seen it used that way?


    April 23, 2014 at 10:07 pm

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