Fact Check

Opera Singer Embarrassment

Legend about an opera singer who reads embarrassingly misprinted lyrics.

Published Sep 10, 2001


Claim:   Opera singer reads embarrassingly misprinted lyrics.


Example:   [Healey and Glanvill, 1994]

A friend had landed his first big role as an opera singer, even if it was in a Gilbert and Sullivan show. It had been a struggle for him to find anything prestigious before because his memory was so bad. I'll tell you another thing: he had a terrible memory.

But in this case his voice was sufficiently good — a lovely rounded bass — to warrant the producer giving him a chance to prove he could cope. The role was that of the famous Tax Collector and, as a concession, the stage director allowed the singer to have a crib sheet positioned in the pit to remind him of his words.

On the opening night, the bass crooner paid more than the standard number of visits to the toilet facilities, but his voice was in good shape. On cue, he strolled confidently onstage and positioned himself in front of his idiot board. The band struck up his theme, and a deep, rich timbre filled the theatre.

Sadly, hazards lie in wait for the unwary. The words of the song go, 'My stately pen is never lax / When I'm assessing income tax'. Unfortunately, the mischievous scamp who'd felt-tipped the words on to the card had neglected to leave a space between 'pen' and 'is', and the nervous artiste simply sang what he read, bringing a right royal flush to his cheeks — and raising a few eyebrows among the genteel ladies in the boxes.


Origins:   Just

as English abounds with puns that play on the homophony of 'seamen' vs. 'semen',

numerous bits of humor turn on the slight difference in orthography between the very different concepts 'penis' and 'pen is.' A favorite proofreading joke with many variations employs a punchline that has the familiar phrase "The pen is mightier than the sword" being rendered as "The penis, mightier than the sword." The piece featured here comes from a collection of urban legends but is really more joke than legend, its convoluted "opera singer with a really bad memory" set-up a bit too far-fetched for a true belief tale. (For the record, the lyrics quoted don't correspond to any genuine Gilbert and Sullivan opera.)

An item in our Photo Gallery also plays on the orthographic similarity of "pen is" and "penis," and an apocryphal quote often attributed to the wife of French president Charles de Gaulle is based on the homophonic similiarity of other common words to "penis" when pronounced by non-native English speakers.

Last updated:   15 March 2014


    Healey, Phil and Rick Glanvill.  
Urban Myths Unplugged

    London: Virgin Books, 1994.   ISBN 0-86369-897-2   (p. 170).

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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