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by Paula LaRocque on October 7th, 2010

Mistakes of the ear—such as in misheard song lyrics—are often called mondegreens, a curious word coined in the 1950s by author Sylvia Wright.  She recalled how she once misunderstood a line from a Scottish ballad titled “The Bonny Earl O’ Morey.”  She thought the line went: “They have slain the Earl Amurray/ and Lady Mondegreen.”  Her romantic notion was that the Earl and his true love, the Lady Mondegreen, died together heroically in the same cause.  Only much later did she discover that the ballad really said that after they killed the Earl, they laid him on the green.

The word “mondegreen” stuck.

Many mondegreens come from songs and recitations, and children specialize in them.  One of the best known is “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear,” from a hymn’s “Gladly the cross I’d bear.”  For many children, “round yon virgin” will always be “round John Virgin.”  The national anthem’s Jose is well known: Jose, can you see?  Richard Stans is famous, too, among children who pledge allegiance: “and to the republic for Richard Stans.”  Children also salute Shirley Murphy in the 23rd Psalm: “Shirley, good Mrs. Murphy, shall follow me all the days of my life.”

Some young recite a passage of the Lord’s Prayer as “lead us not into Penn Station,” while others say: “lead a snot into temptation.”  Modern youth more familiar with plumbing problems than with witchcraft hear the line “double double toil and trouble” in Shakespeare’s MacBeth as “double double toilet trouble.”

That mondegreens sometimes make no sense seems to bother no one—although who could assail the logic of “through the night with a light from a bulb?”

William Safire’s language column once took up the subject of big-name mondegreens.  He mentioned that he once thought Guy Lombardo’s name was Guylum Bardo, and his readers donated their own celebrity mondegreens: “Victor Moan” for Vic Damone, “Gorvey Doll” for Gore Vidal, “Big Spider Beck” for Bix Beiderbeck, “Sophie Aloran” for . . . you know.

I once wrote a column on mondegreens for The Dallas Morning News, and readers responded with their own.  One thought there was a famous woman singer named “Elephants Gerald.”  Another thought the “Londonderry Air” was the “London Derrière.”  Another wrote that when he was in high school, he thought a line in his school song was “we’re loyal through the weedy parts,” and found out only much later that the lyric was actually “we’re loyal and true though we depart.”

Misheard song lyrics show that we’ll tolerate all kinds of bafflement in music.  A reader said that he sang Patti Page’s “leave your fickle past behind you” as “leave your pickle patch behind you.”  A second wrote that he thought for years that a line from “Groovin’ on a Sunday Afternoon”—”you and me endlessly”—was “you and me and Leslie.”  He said he never could figure out how Leslie fit in, but that maybe it was some sort of ménage à trois.

A unique mondegreen was one reader’s understanding of “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”  He thought those lines read “The ants are our friends. They’re blowin’ in the wind. The ant, sir, is blowin’ in the wind.”  He said he thought it was some sort of environmental protest song.

The best mondegreen in my own experience was created by a hotel clerk in 1989—when I was out of town on business. The clerk had taken a message from my secretary at The Dallas Morning News, who had called to say we’d just won a Pulitzer Prize. But the slip of paper the clerk handed me seemed at first to have something to do with a chicken casserole.  It read: “We want a pullet surprise.”

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[Portions of this blog appear in LaRocque’s book, On Words.]

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