Category Archives: Writing

Mondegreens; new words for old.

jimi hendrix - scuse me while I kiss this guy

Many, many years ago in my infant school days, Miss Evans, my RI (religious instruction; no tiresome PC hand-wringing about the place of religion in schools in those days) teacher overheard me expressing the Trinitarian formula – The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost – as The Father, The Son, in the hole he goes. I wasn’t trying to be funny. I had just attended the funeral of an elderly great uncle, and I honestly thought that these were the words the vicar used as they lowered the old boy into the trench.

Miss Evans thought otherwise, and temporarily banished me to the Dull Boys Bench, which I had to share with Snotty Jarvis and Tubby Potter, permanent occupants and the two dimmist kids in the world. Snotty was so thick that he thought Snotty was his real name and refused to believe that it was really Cyril – and, I suppose, who can blame him? Tubby is still there I think, being totally incapable of ever finding his way off the bench.

Anyway, the shame, indignity and unfairness of my short exile on the numpty table never left me. That it was caused by my RI teacher coloured my attitude towards all things ecclesiastical for life, and even today I get a nervous twitch when I find myself in the vicinity of a vicar.

I didn’t know it then, but I had become the victim of a “mondegreen”.

Introducing the Mondegreen.

A mondegreen is a word or phrase that results from the mishearing or misinterpretation of a statement or song lyric, often with an amusing result.

American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in 1954, in an article for Harper’s Magazine. She explained how, as a girl, her mother used to read aloud to her from Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which contained a poem called The Bonny Earl of Murray. She was fond of this poem, but was bemused by a character called Lady Mondegreen, who is mentioned just once and never appears again.

As she recalled it the verse went:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

Years later, on seeing the ballad in print, she realised that the poem actually read:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh where have you been?
They have slain the Earl o’ Moray
And layd him on the green.

As she wrote in Harper’s Magazine “The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.”

(Incidentally, she makes no mention of the appalling mental damage which she must have suffered, having poetry read aloud to her at a very young age. Poor thing. No wonder she became a writer.)

As a result of her Harpers article the term gained traction and although not widely used it was adopted by the literary pretentious, who like to display their linguistic one-upmanship by, for example, calling people “quadragenarians” instead of “forty somethings.”

Mondegreens are all around us. Most of us have fallen victim to them and they are a common feature of popular culture, where masses of people have the opportunity to miss-hear a song lyric or a phrase from a film.

One of the best known examples from popular music occurs in the Jimi Hendrix song Purple Haze, where the line “S’cuse me while I kiss the sky” is commonly misheard as “s’cuse me while I kiss this guy.” This mondegreen became so well known that Jimi himself sometimes sang it in place of the original line.

The obscure lyrics of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody are another rich source of mondegreens, especially in my own family. My youngest daughter used to sing “Beelzebub has a devil for a sideboard me” instead of the correct line “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me” whilst I, instead of singing “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all” was convinced the words were “I sometimes wish I’d never been boiled in oil”. I still think that my version is better.

But mondegreens are not just a modern phenomenon.

We’ve all sung the Christmas song The Twelve Days of Christmas, and I’m sure I’m not the only one to have wondered about the line “Four calling birds”. Calling birds? And why would anyone think they’d make a nice present, whatever they are?

It turns out that the line should actually read “Four colly birds.” The word colly is an old English term literally meaning “black as coal,” and thus “colly birds” would be blackbirds. Blackbirds were a great delicacy in earlier times and would have made a suitable gift. However, as the song travelled around the world, listeners, unfamiliar with the English word colly (and presumably with the practice of actually eating blackbirds) changed it to calling, and so the line became not only one of the earliest mondegreens, but also one where the mondegreen supplanted the original line to become the “official” version.

Often we don’t have to look too far to find a rich source of mondegreens.

In a village not five miles from where I live resides an old farmer who has a rich repertoire of homespun mondegreens. He is one of that breed and generation who enjoyed only a basic education before starting work on the farm at 14. Not that he is lacking in intelligence mind you; he is as sharp as a pin and can get the better of any of us townies in any transaction you care to mention. However, as he rarely reads anything that isn’t a farm calender, there are many words he hears which he has never seen written down. Consequently he is in the habit of replacing any unfamiliar word with something he is more at home with, which of course, leads to some classic mondegreens.

For instance after watching a TV programme about sea life he announced to everyone in the bar of his local pub that octopussys, as he called them, have eight testicles.

On another occasion he informed us that a singer he’d seen at a charity concert had enjoyed a standing ovulation.

But perhaps my favourite – albeit tragic– mondegreen was when he notified us that his nephew had caught cystic vibrator, and complained that it was disgraceful that scientists had not yet found a way of ejaculating people against it.

And that is the power of mondegreens. They can make even a terrible disease sound less horrible, and bring a smile to the lips even in dark times..

So let’s hear it for the mondegreen. Let’s use them whenever we can. And let’s make the world a happier, if slightly more puzzling place.


Amazon’s Research Assistant

Research imageResearching a new book is not my favorite part of the publishing process. Which is why I am delighted to have found a
little wheeze that makes the job a bit easier. It has actually been around for years, but I’ve only just discovered it, which I suppose enhances my techno-thicko credentials but I don’t care. It doesn’t pay to be too cutting edge; you’re always the first up against the wall in a revolution. Just look at what happened in Cambodia.
Anyway, this concerns the downloading of pdf files from my computor to my Kindle.
When you’re trawling all over the internet during the course of research, you will very often come across a paper or report in pdf. format which contains plenty of interesting information. Being a pdf file makes it easily downloadable, which is great if you want to read it later, at your convenience.
Now, even more convenient is the fact that you can transfer this file from your computor to your Kindle device, so that not only can you read it at your convenience, but you can read it IN your convenience if you want to, as well as in bed, in the shed, on the plane or when you’re driving (just joking!)
In case you don’t already know, in order to do this you connect the Kindle to the computer using a USB cable. The Kindle then appears as a removable drive. Click on its icon to open and you’ll see a set of folders. All you have to do is drag and drop or copy and paste your pdf file into the Kindle’s Documents folder and it appears as an item on the Home page.
The problem is, though, that very often pdfs transfered this way don’t display properly. Usually on my machine the font size is so miniscule that it looks like a series of lines and even at maximum resolution I have to squint like Mr Magoo in order to read anything at all. This is because the pdf is not in a proper Kindle format.

The easier way
Which brings me to that little wheeze I was crowing about at the beginning of this article. It seems that those clever folks at Amazon have already thought of this and have come to the rescue by making it easy to convert your pdf into the proper format.
Here’s how it works.
Firstly you have to make sure that your device is registered with Amazon and has its own approved email address (log on to your Amazon account, go to the Manage Your Kindle web page (Manage Your Device > Personal Document Settings) and set it up.
Then all you need to do is send the pdf to the Kindle email address as an email attachment with “convert” in the subject line and it’s automatically reformatted into Kindle format and sent back to your Kindle.
Easy eh?
photo credit: Business still life via photopin (license)

Amazon Clamps Down on Poor Spelling

There are thousands of e-books on the Amazon Kindle Store that have content errors. They may range from a series of simple spelling mistakes to a total mishmash of misspelling, appalling grammar and non-existent editing.
In an attempt to counter this and provide a better reading experience, Amazon will, from third February, begin showing customers a warning message on the Kindle store detail pages of books that contain validated quality issues. The warning message will be removed as soon as Amazon receives an updated file from self-published authors or publishing companies.

amazon kindle content warning message
Whilst this is good news for readers like myself who have bought and downloaded a book only to find that it’s almost unreadable, as an author I have some reservations.
Take spellings, for example. As a Brit I write colour, which is different to the American spelling of color. There’s aeroplane and airplane, authorise and authorize and a whole host of words that have different national spellings. You will no doubt think of many yourself. Both versions are correct, but my UK spell checker flags up the US spelling as wrong.
And what about arcane technical and scientific terms like Pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism, which is a medical condition? (Boy did my spell checker have to think about that one before it marked it up!)
When we throw in dialect, slang, conversation and deliberate misspelling, not to mention foreign accents, intentional spoonerisms and bastardised and “new” words, one can’t help wondering just how Amazon and its presumably automated editing is going to sort out what is correct and what isn’t. Much of meaning and spelling is derived from the context, and anyway what is the good of correcting spelling if you ignore poor construction, punctuation and grammar?
My fear is that in trying to cure one problem, Amazon is opening a large Pandora’s box of others.
Unless the AI  (for I’m sure the editing won’t be done by humans) is more sophisticated than anything we’ve seen before, this new initiative will surely catch good, well written works as well as bad ones.
Which will leave the readers no better off than before.


According to The Collins English Dictionary, literalism is ‘the disposition to take words and statements in their literal sense.
Take it from me, this dry-as-dust definition describes a condition which can momentarily lead to an almost psychedelic sense of unreality and some pretty amazing mental images.
I know, for I suffer from mild literalism.
The symptoms first appeared some years ago, when I was doing some work for a multi-national company and had been called to a meeting at a local factory. I had arrived early, and with time to spare I was passing the time perusing the noticeboard in the corridor.
A health and safety alert caught my eye.
Apparently, there had been a serious chemical leakage at a sister plant up north. Although it was a potentially lethal situation the danger was averted when, as the notice explained, ‘the staff evacuated.’
Now, evacuate can mean several things, but the way this sentence was written simply means that the staff defecated.
And who can blame them? I thought. It must have scared then to death. I was glad I didn’t have to clear up the mess though.
Of course, after a moment of sober reflection I realised that this was merely a case of sloppy writing. What was really meant was that the staff were evacuated.
Humph! How mundane. My initial reading was so much more colourful.
That’s the trouble with literalism. Everything is such a let down when you discover what people really mean.
Now in this instance the onset of my literalism was triggered by some slapdash grammar, but even correct English can set off an attack.
There was the time in Austria when a guide told me that in the 19th century English visitors were common in the Tyrol, and I spent a blissful few hours imaging hordes of drunken shell-suited Victorian Brits rampaging around Innsbruck, swearing, belching, and eating fish and chips from half-read copies of ‘The Sun’ newspaper.
Alas, the guide merely meant that English visitors were frequent, and not common as in vulgar or coarse. Ah well. It was a glorious thought whilst it lasted.
Here’s another example.
I was recently watching a TV programme about prehistory, (I know. I really should get out more.)
I have to admit that it was fairly heavy going, and the eyes were beginning to glaze over in preparation for the long blink, when suddenly the presenter said “About 10000BC the population of the world exploded.’
Now this perked me up no end, and the old brain cells started whirring.
The population exploded? Wow! Now that is interesting. Did they detonate all at once, or one after another, I wondered. Perhaps they blew up in groups, one tribe at a time. Either way there must have been one colossal bang. Why had nobody mentioned this before? And once again, for I have a tidy mind and like to get these things straight, I wondered who cleared up the mess.
Of course I soon realised that I had gone off the mark again. The presenter simply meant that the population had multiplied rapidly. (Damn. That won’t do either. I now have a picture of stone age people reciting their times-tables very quickly.) No, what the presenter meant, and what I should have written, was that the population rapidly increased in number. Which is no doubt historically more accurate but not nearly as much fun.
The English language is littered with snares for literalists like me, and there’s nothing I can do about it except bow down and accept the situation. How far do you think I should bend?

Million Dollar Howlers

According to Amazon, more Kindle books are returned due to bad spelling and grammar than for any other reason.
It’s not hard to see why the Kindle in particular should be so singularly prone to typos.

  • Authors are human (mostly), and make mistakes.
  • The rush to publish and the DIY nature of the Kindle process means that many authors are dispensing with the quality control processes which were integral to the traditional publishing process. Specifically, instead of using the publishing house’s professional copy-editors they are correcting their own manuscripts which, as I know only too well,  is almost impossible to do successfully.

Copy-editors are trained to pick up those howlers and faux-pas that slip unnoticed into the work of lesser mortals. Most professional organisations wouldn’t dream of publishing or releasing any information before it had been throughly checked over for errors by copy-editors or other specialists.
Which makes the following blunders and boo-boos as puzzling as they were expensive.

Penguin Tales

Back in 2010, Penguin Australia had to pulp 7000 copies of ‘The Pasta Bible’ because it contained a receipe for tagliatelle and sardines which called for ‘salt and freshly ground black people. . .’ It should, of course, have read black pepper.

The most expensive hyphen in history

On July 22, 1962 Mariner 1 was launched from Cape Canaveral, marking the United States’ first attempt at an inter-planetary mission. Unfortunately a hyphen had been ommitted from the coded computer instructions, resulting in incorrect guidance signals being sent to the spacecraft. (Actually there was some speculation that the problem might have been caused by an ‘overbar transcription error’—whatever that is—or even a misplaced decimal point, but the missing hyphen was the most likely culprit. Either way it was an editing error.) As a result, five minutes after launch the Range Safety Officer issued the destruct command and the $80 million spacecraft was blown to smithereens. The spelling error ended up costing each and every US taxpayer about one dollar each.

Chilean disaster

ChilecoinHow’s this for a high profile spelling mistake?
In 2008, 1.5 million Chilean 50 peso coins were released with the South American country’s name spelled as ‘Chiie’ instead of ‘Chile’. The mistake was not caught until a coin collector reported the error. By that time, 1.5 million coins were already distributed to the public. Although the mint has so far refused to remove the coin from circulation the mistake has caused the country significant embarrassment, and several Chilean mint employees lost their jobs because of this massive error.

It’s unlikely that any of us Kindle writers will be responsible for howlers on the same scale as these, but maybe we should learn from them.
If the people responsible for such important projects as these can make such gigantic cock-ups, what chance have we got to catch our own mistakes unaided?
So get a professional copy-editor to check your manuscript. Don’t be tempted to scrimp on this stage.
You may not lose a million dollars. But it might cost you your reputation.

The Writer’s Secret Weapon

If you’re writing and self-publishing book of any sort, but particularly a non fiction book containing facts and figures, here’s a great tip that will save you possibly hours of time in the correction and editing stage.

Write yourself a style-guide and stick to it.

Let me explain.
Look at this rough draft extract from a book about electric bikes.

On the urban commutes and similar short journeys which account for eighty per cent of electric bike usage, the electric bike is about 15 percent quicker overall than than any other form of powered vehicle. Although cars are capable of much greater absolute speed, traffic conditions in towns and cities reduce their average speed on an urban journey to below 9 mph, which is some 9 % slower than the average speed of an electric bike (just over ten miles per hour).’

Notice anything? In one short paragraph I’ve written percentages in three different ways, (eighty per cent, 15 percent, 9 %), miles per hour in two different ways (mph, miles per hour), and rendered numerals in both number and letter formats (9, nine, etc.)
It makes the thing difficult to read, it lacks clarity, and it looks sloppy. It’s just not consistent. It gives the impression that the writer is careless, and unconcerned with the quality of his writing. Which might also leave a reader concerned about the quality of his information.
And there are many more stylistic traps for the unwary.
How about ages, for example? Do you write ‘She was 30’, or do you write ‘She was thirty’?
What about dates? Should you write ‘April 1 1914′, or April 1st 1914? Or even 1 April 1914, or April first 1914’?
How do you deal with abbreviations (e.g. or e.g or eg?), Dates? Times? Titles?. . . The list of possibilities for inconsistent formatting goes on and on.
Of course you may argue that that your job as an author is to get the stuff down on paper in the first place, and ensuring consistency is the job of the copy editor (or should that be copy-editor?). And you’d be right—if you or your publisher can afford one. But many new self-publishing authors are their own copy editors, and I speak from experience when I tell you that trawling through a 300 page manuscript for the fourth time just to address these elements of consistent styling leaves you with an empty feeling of despair and a need to reach for the medicinal whisky bottle.
Believe me, it’s better to aim for consistency right from the start.
So, my advice to you is to put together your own style-guide as soon as possible.

A guide to your style-guide

A style-guide is not a guide to the basic rules of good grammar, correct spelling and clear communication, which should already be familiar to you. (If not you’re in the wrong job.)
A style-guide sets out your own house-style, which is just a posh name for a set of rules which ensure uniformity of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, abbreviations, numbers and all those other little rascals that are open to inconsistency of style.
In most cases there is no right or wrong way. Miles per hour is just as valid as miles-per-hour or mph. Thirty is no more correct than 30. (Unless it starts a sentence, but let’s not get too technical here.) It’s mostly a matter of preference. But the important thing is consistency. Be uniform across the whole document. Decide what your house-style will be, and stick to it.
Although there are generally no hard and fast rules, common practice, evolving modern parlance, and the need for clarity have led to some usages becoming widely accepted by the major style manuals (which we’ll look at shortly). You might want to adopt these rules.
Your own style guide will be tailored to your needs and what you’re writing. If you’re a writer of murder mysteries for instance, you might only need a few notes clarifying your treatment of dates, or ages. If you write history books you might also need to decide how you will handle foreign names, or titles, or references. A writer of a technical or scientific book may need a more chunky guide, addressing elements such as mathematical formula, percentages, numbers, statistics, equations, and anything and everything under the sun.
Sounds like a lot of work? It really doesn’t take that long.
As a starting point you could look at some of the major online style-guides. These have been developed by major publications with many contributing writers. The guide (often called a style manual), ensures that each writer adopts a tone and style consistent with the company’s wishes.
There are many out there, and a simple internet search will give you plenty to choose from. Here are just three.

The Chicago Manual of Style Online : A very widely used style manual published since 1906 by the University of Chicago Press

Garbl’s Editorial Style Manual: Writing and editing advice about abbreviations, addresses, capitalization, English grammar, numbers, organization terminology, plurals, possessives, punctuation, spelling, word usage, and the World Wide Web.”

Telegraph Style Book:   The ‘official guide to house style’ for The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, and

These are massive resources, and can cover anything from the correct spelling of Abbottabad (the city in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was found) to the correct use of the word ‘Zionist’. Clearly they are far more comprehensive than anything most authors need, but they are worth looking at for several reasons:

  • You can see how they address the styling issues that you face. . .
  • . . . which you can adopt yourself, if it suits your own style.
  • You can, if you want, identify and adopt those usages which are widely accepted as best practice.
  • They are handy to refer back to for guidance should any unexpected stylistic issue raise its head.
  • They are fascinating references in themselves, and a good way to waste half an hour if you’ve got the time to spare.

OK. I know that you are a writer. You’ve got a book in your head which needs coaxing out, and you need the diversion of concocting a style-guide like you need a snake in your bed.
But it needn’t take long. And take it from me, it’s not wasting time. It may be a pain, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.