What Is a Purple People Eater, Anyway?: Thoughts on Hyphenating Compound Words

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Spoiler Alert: This post contains a mild spoiler for the Netflix show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. If you haven’t watched it yet, do, but in the meantime, scroll down and start reading the next section. It will still make sense, I promise.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

In episode 11 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm) is on trial for kidnapping four women and keeping them in an underground bunker for fifteen years, claiming that the apocalypse had happened. Representing himself in the trial, he uses his folksy mannerisms, guitar playing, and Jon Hamm handsomeness to charm the jury, at one point telling them, “I’d like to play you folks a little song about another ‘craaaaazy’ preacher you might’a heard of. His name was Jesus.” And then he launches into the classic novelty song “The Purple People Eater.”

He was a one-eyed, one-horned, flyin’ purple people eater
One-eyed, one-horned, flyin’ purple people eater
One-eyed, one-horned, flyin’ purple people eater
Sure looks strange to me

After I recovered from cracking up at this beautifully executed joke, I wondered, Wait, what the hell is a purple people eater? As it turns out, there’s some controversy about this question because the song's title lacks clarifying punctuation.


The Confusion

“The Purple People Eater,” written and performed by Sheb Wooley, was the song of the summer in 1958—it topped the Billboard chart for six weeks. It tells a very silly story about an alien who comes to earth because he wants to be a rock star and possibly also eat people. From the beginning, people were confused about the meaning of the song. What was purple: the alien or the people?

When multiple adjectives are piled in front of a noun (called compound adjectives, phrasal adjectives, or compound modifiers in writing guides), the relationship between the words in the phrase can become confusing. Inserting hyphens prevents misreading.

Floor-length gown
Four-year-old child
Blue-collar jobs

Similarly, when two or more words are put together to make one noun, adding a hyphen can clarify that the words are one item (called a compound noun).

Father-in-law
Well-being
Get-together

If the title had been “The Purple-People Eater,” the song would clearly be about an alien who eats purple people (a compound adjective modifying a noun). If it had been called “The Purple People-Eater,” it would clearly be about a purple alien who eats people (an adjective modifying a compound noun). But the song’s title, “The Purple People Eater,” doesn’t use a hyphen, so it can be interpreted either way.


Possibility 1: The Alien Is Purple

I had always assumed, based on the cover of the LP that I had as a youngster, that the one-eyed, one-horned alien was purple.

Most people interpret the song this way. In fact, a low-budget movie based on the song was made in 1988. It starred a young Neil Patrick Harris, along with Ned Beatty, Shelley Winters, Thora Burch, Chubby Checker, Little Richard, and a very purple alien.

You can watch the whole movie on YouTube, but I should warn you that San Francisco Chronicle critic Peter Stack called it “a new low in children's films.”*


Possibility 2: The People Are Purple

Why do some listeners disagree with the idea that the alien is purple? Because of this lyric:

I said Mr. Purple People Eater, what's your line
He said it's eatin' purple people and it sure is fine
But that's not the reason that I came to land
I wanna get a job in a rock and roll band

Oldies expert Dusty Rhodes told the column Ask a Stupid Question, “It would seem as though the color refers to the people being ingested more than the monster.”

A Time magazine article written at the height the song’s popularity declares, “Disk jockeys all over the country have invited their listeners to draw the Purple People Eater (both the jockeys and listeners seemed to miss the fine point that the People Eater is not really purple but merely an eater of purple people).”

That summer, LIFE magazine created a spread featuring some of these drawings, and a photograph in the middle shows Sheb Wooley with a people eater puppet that his wife made. But the photo is in black and white, so we can’t be 100 percent sure that the puppet is purple.


The Answer

I dug through a bunch of archives to get to the bottom of this question. It turns out the song was inspired by a joke another songwriter, Don Robertson, heard from his kids and told to Sheb Wooley.

“What has one eye, one horn, flies, and eats people?”
“A one-eyed, one-horned flying people-eater.”

Wooley decided there was song potential in it. He let it marinate for a few days until “the purple people eater landed in Sheb’s patio. When he saw that part of the riddle was missing—he hadn’t known before that the one-eyed, one-horned fellow was purple—the song was as good as finished,” explains a 1958 Tucson Daily Citizen profile of Wooley. “I could see him sitting on the lawn,” Wooley recalls, “one eye, one horn, and all purple.”**

That same year, a United Press International article quotes Wooley as saying, “I just gave him a color—purple.”***

In 1988, he told the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) that he “added the purple part ‘for color.’”**** The interview was occasioned by the release of the movie, in which, it turns out, Sheb Wooley has a small part. (In addition to being a songwriter, Wooley was an actor who mostly appeared in Westerns, including Rawhide and High Noon.)

It would seem, then, that the songwriter intended the one-eyed, one-horned flying people eater to be purple. I couldn’t find any interviews with Wooley that directly address the line about eatin’ purple people, but I like to imagine that he wrote that lyric to add to the song’s overall zaniness.

“I think we need humor in music,” Wooley explains to the NEA. “I think we need more humor in the world, period. It’s a healing ointment.” If Wooley were still alive, I think he’d be pleased to see what Kimmy Schmidt has done with his song.


* Stack, Peter. “‘Purple People Eater’: Nothing to Sing About.” San Francisco Chronicle 19 Dec. 1988. Web [NewsBank database]. 27 Apr. 2015.

** Campbell, Bob. “The Living End Is Reached.” Tucson Daily Citizen 28 June 1958. Web [Newspaper ARCHIVE Library Edition]. 27 Apr. 2015.

*** United Press International. “Purple People Eater Rates No. 1 on Everybody's List.” Independent Press-Telegram 15 June 1958. Web [Newspaper ARCHIVE Library Edition]. 27 Apr. 2015.

**** Newspaper Enterprise Association. Vare, Ethelie Ann. “Video Update.” The Frederick Post 16 Dec. 1988. Web [Newspaper ARCHIVE Library Edition]. 27 Apr. 2015.