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.