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Mind the greens!

Some years ago, the British newspaper the Guardian briefly ran a series in its Weekend supplement on Saturdays called “Come Again”, recounting the strange misunderstandings which occur when we don’t quite catch the words of a song lyric, a station announcement or other indistinct bit of language. That wonderful pattern-matching ability I’ve mentioned elsewhere comes into being and forces us to turn garble into sense, any sense, even if it’s nonsense.

I first came across the canonical example of such misunderstandings at university many years ago, when a friend showed me her teddy-bear. Old and faded, with one ear gone and his fur worn down to the nap, he was past his best but obviously still a cherished object. “I call him Gladly,” she said. Seeing my blank look, she explained patiently, “You know, as in ‘Gladly, the cross-eyed bear’.” It took a few moments for the penny to drop. In the years since, I’ve come across a couple of others — the story about the small child saying his prayers: “Our Father, which art in Heaven. Harold be thy name” and a creative version of a once-popular Beatles song, “The girl with colitis goes by”. And I was recently reminded of a popular song current in my youth (the early fifties) entitled Shrimp Boats, which had the line “The shrimp boats are a-coming”. The next line, I have only just discovered, was “Their sails are in sight” but my juvenile concentration on the basics of life rendered it as “They’ll be frying tonight”, and this is the version that has stayed with me for more than forty years.

It was only a little while ago, when a query came into the Usenet group alt.usage.english, that I discovered not only that these felicitous mishearings are sought out and treasured by lots of people, but that they have a name: mondegreens. As an avid collector of words, this set me off on a trail that seems to be unending. I discovered that the name was coined by Sylvia Wright, in an article called “The Death of Lady Mondegreen”, in Harper’s Magazine in 1954. It appears she had as a child misheard the last line of a famous old Scottish ballad called The Bonny Earl o’ Murray (sometimes spelled Moray) and thought it went:

Ye Hielands and ye Lowlands,
O where hae ye been?
Thay hae slain the Earl o’ Murray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

“How romantic to have them both die together,” she thought, and was bitterly disappointed when the last line turned out to be the much more prosaic: “And hae laid him on the green”. However, she turned her disappointment to our benefit by changing her elegant-sounding mistake into a truly aristocratic name for the whole class of aural misinterpretations. It hasn’t made many dictionaries yet, but the columnist Jon Carroll is waging a single-handed battle through his articles in the San Francisco Chronicle to get the name more widely recognised. To judge by the number of Web pages devoted to mondegreeens, so described, he’s winning.

Here are a few examples from the column in The Guardian:

Many people would argue that most of the mishearings in the Guardian column are not in fact mondegreens. They limit that word to an accidental mishearing of the words of a song. By that definition, this one, for which I am indebted to Markus Laker, is not a mondegreen either: a deliberate mishearing in a Maxell TV commercial of the last line of Desmond Decker’s The Israelite “Oh oh, me ears are alight”, the correct words being “Oh oh, the Israelite”.

If you’d like to explore further, here are some places to look:

Happy mondegreening ...

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 21 Feb 1996; Last updated 13 May 2003