It's Not Easy Being Mondegreen

Word Ways, February 2010 | Go to article overview

It's Not Easy Being Mondegreen


As every card-carrying recreational linguist knows, a mondegreen is a mishearing: a phrase that has been misconstrued, usually with humorous results.

The word mondegreen is itself a mondegreen.

A 17th-century Scottish ballad contains the verse "They hae slain the Earl of Moray, / And hae laid him on the green." In 1954, Sylvia Wright wrote a magazine article in which she reported that, as a child, she had misheard the line as "And Lady Mondegreen." Wright coined the term that is now in universal use--more or less.

(Parenthetical: The Earl's name is often rendered as Morey or Murray. Some say these are misspellings while others deem them legitimate variants. I won't attempt to resolve such disputes here.)

A mondegreen is similar to a malapropism--a botched utterance such as "This legislation is unparalyzed in the state's history." Technically, a mondegreen is misheard rather than misspoken. But when it's naively repeated, it becomes a malapropism as well.

Here's a sampling of mondegreens:

* A TV viewer saw a commercial claiming that a car was carved from "a single block of steel." She heard it as "a single glockenspiel."

* A 2008 news story about newly released Nixon-era tape recordings reported that a transcriber rendered "Mao Zedong" as "Nelson's tongue."

* A chorus from Handel's Messiah, "All we like sheep have gone astray" was misheard as the possibly more suggestive "Oh, we like sheep."

* A friend told me she wanted to see a stage show with the gloomy title A Thousand Tears. She had misunderstood a radio announcement; the correct title was the happier As Thousands Cheer.

* William Satire collected such inventive mishearings as "for all intensive purposes," "to hold in escarole," and the familiar anthem "London Derriere."

Children are natural mondegreeners. Over the years, untold numbers have dutifully intoned "Jose can you see," "I led the pigeons to the flag," and "To the republic, for Richard Stans."

A while ago, I personally witnessed a mondegreen in action. At my gym, I overheard a conversation about the "Glass-Spiegel Act." The speaker meant the Glass- Steagall Act, an important 1933 law regulating the banking industry. It's a common error; a search for "Glass Spiegel" in quotation marks yields more than 4,000 matches--along with this helpful Google query: "Did you mean Glass-Steagall? …

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