The Problem with Pen Island

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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.

Examples of The Problem with Pen Island include:


Comic Books[edit | hide | hide all]

  • 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 certain four-letter words.
    • Urban Legend says that the Comics Code specifically forbade the use of the words "Clint" and "Flick" for this reason. (Not true, though.)
    • 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.)
    • "Flick" is also used, though comics writer Peter David recalls an actual angry letter about a villain saying, “I SHALL DESTROY YOU AS EASILY AS I WOULD FLICK AN INSECT OFF MY SHOULDER.
    • Scottish writer Mark Millar deliberately invoked this trope with his British comics magazine CLiNT, launched in September 2010.
    • Demonstrated by this old comic and a more recent comic.
    • 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".

Film[edit | hide]

  • 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.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • In Lolita, Villain Protagonist Humbert Humbert comments on this is in respect to "therapist / "the rapist". He would know.
    • There's actually a joke involving that: "I take the 'the' out of psychotherapist."
  • In the third Foundation novel by Isaac Asimov, a school's policy of having students sign their reports by first initial, last name was given an exception in the case of a young Olynthus Dam.

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Played with multiple times on Saturday Night Live's "Celebrity Jeopardy!" sketches, although it's strongly implied that Sean Connery[1] 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 Chicks" (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.
  • There was a Benny Hill sketch where he was a sign painter and he was painting a door for a therapist, and he painted "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."
  • Played with in Arrested Development with "Tobias Fünke: Analrapist" (Analyst/Therapist). Tobias insists that it be pronounced "Ah-NAL-rap-pist", but it's hard to read it as anything but what it says on his business card, even when compressed into a single word.

Tobias: "Oh no, it's pronounced 'Ah-NAL-rap-pist'."
Buster: "The pronounciation is not what I'm worried about."

  • 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.
  • Demetri Martin did a sketch about this.
  • Deliberately invoked by the written sketch compilation MONTYPYTHONSCRAPBOOK.
  • 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.
  • 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".

Magazines[edit | hide]

  • 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 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 womens' magazine was called Closer by its publishers. Given that on at least one occassion, the capital "C" of "Closer" has been obscured by elements of the cover design or lead picture, this might have been a naming error..

Music[edit | hide]

  • 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."

New Media[edit | hide]

  • 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:
  • 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.
  • This bash.org quote.
  • Here's a top 10 list of them.
  • The URL to the official website of Repo! The Genetic Opera, as noticed by quite a few people, is rePOOPera.com. Apparently noticeable enough that 'repo-opera' is now a redirect.
  • It's been noted a few times that the url for the section of the Arlington Cemetery site about the Tomb Of The Unknowns ends in tombofun.htm - as in Tomb O' Fun.
  • http://www.gencysexit.com. If you look in the upper left corner of your computer when visiting that site, it even says "Fuck You TV Tropes".
  • http://fuckyeahmenswear.tumblr.com is about menswear, not an enthusiastic affirmation that men swear.
  • http://www.rebelscum.com, a Star Wars database famous for its action figure photo archive.
  • http://www.michaelspornanimation.com sounds like some guy's Hentai collection, but is in fact the site of an animation company run by a man named Michael Sporn.
  • This FML story.
  • 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.
  • http://weheartit.com/ is a photograph site, not a site about hearing boobs.
  • 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.

Newspaper Comics[edit | hide]

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • Crow gets confused in Dreamfall: "A real therapist he was... or wait maybe it was 'rapist'..."
  • In a similar vein, there's a mod/cheat utility program for Dwarf Fortress called Dwarf Therapist. This is not particularly funny until you notice that the URL for the program is http://code.google.com/p/dwarftherapist/ .
  • The original Metroid had the Classic Cheat Code NARPAS SWORD. It doesn't stand for any particular sword, but for North American Release Password or Not A Real Password, since the Japanese version of the game didn't use a password system. The space was due to how the password input worked.
  • Gabe Newell's email is 'gaben'. 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.
  • 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.

Web Comics[edit | hide]


Web Original[edit | hide]

Western Animation[edit | hide]

"No, no, I'm not a therapist. I'm The Rapist. A lot of people make that mistake."

Real Life[edit | hide]

  • 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 Miriam-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...
  • THE​SPACE​WAS​NOT​IN​WIDE​USE​UNTIL​AFTER​CLASSICAL​ANTIQUITY.​CLASSICAL​HEBREW,​GREEK,​AND​LATIN​WERE​TYPICALLY​WRITTEN​WITHOUT​SPACES,​OR​·​ WITH​·​NOW-OBSCURE​·​DIACRITICS​·​TO​·​MARK​·​DISAMBIGUATING​·​WORD​·​ BREAKS.
    • 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.)
  • Apache Maven (a build manager for Java projects) uses pom (not porn) files.
    • Similarly, in Brazil there's a brand of baby diapers called "Pom Pom", and the font used doesn't help. At least in is awkward enough just for English-speakers, since in Portuguese, "pornografia" is abbreviated "pornô".
  • There's a real shop called "Kidsexchange".
    • While not quite as 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".
    • Comic writers tend not to use the word "clint"
    • And to make it worse, they're actually quite tasty. The fish, we mean.
  • 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.
  • A 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.
  • 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.
  • A current British TV advert for infant nappies claims their product frees up Baby to go and make nudist coveries with confidence. It takes a few listens in context before you realise the phrase is "new discoveries"
  • A popular gay cruising and hangout spot in the city of Manchester, England, is Canal Street. Unfortunately, people—not always mischievous heteros—will insist on stealing two letters from the street signs so they read " ANAL TREET"
  1. played by Darrell Hammond
  2. Mole Station is a bit of property on the Mole River in Australia; the URL for the nursery has since been changed to http://www.molerivernursery.com/ because of this trope.
  3. The site has since been moved to http://www.experts-exchange.com/ and the hyphenless version has expired and taken by domain squatters.
  4. The URL has since been changed to http://www.counselingcalifornia.com/
  5. They're in the process of changing their address to http://www.ferrethjobs.com
  6. The new one was taken by squatters. Here is the old one.