Mondegreens on the Moon

 In Public Speaking Tips, The Resonant Speaker

Fifty years ago, humans landed on the moon and one of the most famous sound bites in history was coined. 

“That’s one small step for [a] man. One giant leap for mankind.”

It was uttered by Astronaut Neil Armstrong as his giant boot touched the lunar surface.

The epic moment was watched and heard by more than 650 million mesmerized people on earth.  And little mention was made of the missing indefinite article before the word “man.”  At the time, there was no fuss over the omitted word because the meaning was clearly understood. After all, Armstrong was speaking from 24,000 miles from earth, inside a helmet, using analog technology.  With all the excitement, it’s remarkable he was able to summon any intelligible comments at all.

Back on earth, Armstrong insisted he had said, “a man.” Decades later, digital sound analysis was used to discern a faint “a,” but does it matter in the context of one of the most momentous occasions in human existence?

Linguists who study how humans communicate say that gaps between what people say and what people hear are common.  They call these gaps mondegreens, a sort of aural malapropism.  Instead of a speaker saying the wrong word, we hear the wrong word.

The term mondegreen is generally applied to misheard song lyrics, although technically it can apply to any speech.  The person who created the term misheard the lyrics of a Scottish ballad which goes: “slay the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green,” as mondegreen.

So, if Armstrong really said, “a man” and the indefinite article was lost in transmission, the phrase would be considered one of history’s most famous mondegreens.  The official NASA transcript of the Apollo 11 mission omits the “a.”  But why quibble with the perfect sentiment to match the indelible footprint which remains on the moon’s surface to this day.

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