Tag Archives: English language

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.



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?