I’ve posted mondegreens on Facebook before, but I’m going to start posting them regularly. I will write them as blogs, then post the links to Facebook, on Mondays. Hence, “Mondegreen Monday.”
In case some are unfamiliar with the term, I’ll start this inaugural installment of Mondegreen Monday with the backstory to the term “mondegreen.” It doesn’t have an etymology in the usual sense. Instead, it originated in the mind of a little girl listening to the reading of a Scottish ballad.
When Sylvia Wright (1917-1981), American author and editor for Harper’s Bazaar, was a child, her mother read aloud to her from Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. She misheard a line in the 17th century Scottish ballad, “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray.” The line reads as follows: “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray/And layd him on the green.” What the child Sylvia heard was “They have slain the Earl o’ Moray/And Lady Mondegreen.”
Sylvia Wright coined the term mondegreen in her essay “The Death of Lady Mondegreen,” published in Harper’s Magazine in November of 1954. In the essay, she wrote, “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.” She preferred her childhood misconception to the original because it was more romantic. She pictured the Earl beside his faithful Lady Mondegreen, both dying in each other’s arms.
So, there you have it. The word mondegreen did not make its way into the English language via word borrowing from Late Latin, or some other circuitous linguistic journey. It came from the faulty hearing and yet fertile imagination of a young girl exposed to classic literature. But the term has nonetheless passed into the lexicon of English usage, and serves us well. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines it as “a word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung.” The dictionary entry also suggests the common example “very close veins” for “varicose veins.”
It currently is most often applied to the misheard lyrics of songs, but it can be derived from misheard verse, as was the case with young Sylvia Wright. In fact, she proposed other such mondegreens of misheard verse, such as “Surely Good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me…” for the 23rd Psalm’s “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me…”
I have an interest in this phenomenon because of my own hearing issues. I contracted malaria in the East Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea in 1986. Upon returning to Texas, I subsequently had another malarial outbreak in the spring of 1987. The treatment was strong doses of straight quinine, which can have the side effect of tinnitus, which is what I experienced, and have had continuously for 31 years. As a result, I mishear things all the time. Sometimes a word or phrase is too garbled for me to make sense of it. And yet, my mind still seems to try to make sense of (misheard) nonsense.
And so I’m interested in mondegreens and/or other forms of mishearing. And I have quite a few examples of them. In all honesty, I created some of my own mondegreens long before I knew the term, back when my hearing issues weren’t an issue. I’ll give you one example: Al Stewart’s song “Post World War II Blues.” Stewart is better known for his songs “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages,” but my favorite songs of his predate those hits, coming from his 1974 album Past, Present and Future. It included the song in question.
In PWWIIB, perhaps his most autobiographical song, he wrote a line about an early memory in the UK involving the Welsh Labour Party politician and son of a miner, Aneurin Bevan. Al Stewart’s line was “Aneurin Bevan took the miner’s cause/To the House of Commons in his coal dust voice.” In 1974, this Texas boy didn’t know who Aneurin Bevan was. So I misheard the name in the line “Aneurin Bevan took the miner’s cause…” as “I remember they took the miner’s cause…”
In closing, I hope this series of blogs will be humorous or entertaining or at least interesting to others. I know quite a few folks that have interest in word play, and/or have issues with hearing and therefore also have experience with mondegreens. I welcome submissions of said mondegreens. It will help keep this series going. Although, given the state of my hearing, I’ll likely have a continuous supply of them myself.