you ever misheard some of the lyrics of a song or poem? Perhaps as a
child listening to nursery rhymes, biblical recitations or Christmas
carols? Nothing to be ashamed of ó almost everyone has had that
experience, and most of us donít find out our error for years.
the point, did you know that thereís a word for such a misheard lyric or
spoken phrase? Itís mondegreen.
hear your chorus now: ďThatís a helluva word. Whatís its origin? Itís
not in my dictionary.Ē Well, itís not in my OED2 either. Nor at
Firstly: it goes back only to November 1954. Secondly: itís unlikely to
be in any but a recent large dictionary or on the Internet (where ďnewĒ
words are always proudly flaunted by those in the know). So hereís the
story, and for it Iím indebted to all such cognoscenti of
neologisms ó including Jennifer
Stewart, the mob at
Carroll at SfGate and Daniel Austin and friends at
Fun with Words.
mondegreen is actually a coinage, almost certainly by a writer
named Sylvia Wright (1917-1981) in an American magazine article (The
Death of Lady Mondegreen). Thereís some disagreement about her
nationality, however: was she British or American? The magazine remains
the subject of discussion, too: some say The Atlantic, other have
it as Harperís.
young child, Sylvia had listened to an anonymous 17th century ballad
The Bonnie Earl oí Moray (sometimes spelt Murray), which
tells of the death of the disgraced but popular earl in 1592. Like many
old ballads, itís very long ó over 60 stanzas, but what concerns us here
is the one line
hae slain the Earl oí Moray and laid him on the green.
Death of Lady Mondegreen, Sylvia revealed that she had heard the
hae slain the Earl oí Moray and Lady Mondegreen.
life, Sylvia realised that this sort of error is quite common, and so in
the article she suggested that a noun ó mondegreen ó be coined
for all such mishearings. The name has stuck, so much so that we now
have the series of books by Gavin Edwards: (a) íScuse Me . . . While
I Kiss This Guy (And Other Misheard Lyrics), (b) Heís Got the
Whole World in His Pants (And More Misheard Lyrics), (c) When a
Man Loves a Walnut (And Even More Misheard Lyrics), (d) Deck the
Halls With Buddy Holly (And Other Misheard Christmas Lyrics).
some examples of pop music mondegreens reported on the Internet.
Couldnít escape if I wanted to [Abba]
Couldnít escape if I wanted to,
pretty, pretty, pretty, Peggy Sue [Buddy Holly]
britches, britches, britches, Baggy Sue,
am a rock, I am an island [Simon and Garfunkel]
am a rock, I am an onion.
craving [k.d. lang]
variously misheard as:
mondegreening isnít confined to popular songs:
you got a CD with Bronze Lullaby on it? Itís classical, I think.
further afield, many a bookseller or librarian has had to stifle a
giggle when asked by a schoolkid something like
you got a copy of the Charles Darwin classic
Oranges and Peaches?
readers should remember this recitation:
pledge a lesion to the flag, of the United State of America, and to the
republic for Richard Stans . . .
perhaps in this form:
led the pigeons to the flag . . .
some Christmas mondegreens:
dressed ye married gentlemen,
nothing through this May,
King Wencesí car backed out
the feet of heathens.
the twelfth day of Christmas,
tulip sent to me:
warts on women,
a cartridge in a pantry.
know: are all the above genuine mistakes, or are they concocted? They
all claim to be fair dinkum, but your guess is as good as mine.
all, a mondegreen should be an unintentional mishearing rather than
conscious word play. Nevertheless, the temptation to make an artificial
mondegreen is sometimes too hard to resist. This is the sort of thing we
looked at in our musical puns column in Bikwil Issue 18 (March
2000), where some examples might well be called premeditated mondegreens
A couple of my favourites:
on the Saveloy
My Gland ó Iíve Got Strange-looking Parasites.
In a way,
the mondegreen resembles the malapropism. As you will know, the
malapropism is named after Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Sheridanís comedy
The Rivals (1775). Sheís the one who uttered immortal lines like
since laid Sir Anthonyís preposition before her [proposition]
He is the
very pine-apple of politeness! [pinnacle]
I reprehend any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue,
and a nice derangement of epitaphs! [apprehend, vernacular, arrangement,
worth keeping in mind that neither malapropisms nor mondegreens would be
possible without one key factor.
referring to the slurring of consonants so prevalent in spoken English,
which is exaggerated by sound recording/broadcasting or oneís distance
from the person singing or speaking.
what occurs when youíre in the lounge-room, say, and someone calls out
from the other end of the house. You catch the vowels, but mishear the
consonants. Happens all the time at our place ó senior moments galore.