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Is that your final ant, sir?
That's a mondegreen. Now you know there is a word for it. Luckily there are no mondegreen police or we would all be rounded up.
By ANU GARG
Monday, February 11, 2002 – Print Edition, Page A18


Paddy Hernon of Victoria, B.C., was never an ardent fan of the Beatles anyway, but when he switched on his car radio and heard their song "A girl with colitis goes by," he was definitely baffled.

What Hernon had caught was the Beatles crooning "A girl with kaleidoscope eyes," in their classic Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

And he is not alone by any means in experiencing this auditory glitch in which people mishear lines of a song or speech, and then, often, repeat it themselves.

Allison Stevenson of St. Catharines, Ont., recalled hearing her little neighbour singing the second line of the Canadian national anthem "Our home and native land" as what he thought was "Our old man ate his lamb."

Face it, chances are you, too, have been guilty of it since childhood. Beginning with the nursery rhymes you heard on the playground to the national anthem you sang in school to lilting love songs on the radio, you have been misinterpreting and repeating them. There happens to be a name for this aural-oral mishap: mondegreen. Now you know there is a word for it, and that you are not alone. Luckily there are no mondegreen police, or we would all be rounded up.

Whether you consider mondegreens a case of aural dyslexia or a kind of Freudian slip, the results are often much more fascinating than the original matter.

The mondegreen effect is not limited to lyrics either. More than one school librarian has seen distraught pupils complaining of not being able to locate the book mentioned in their class: Charles Darwin's seminal work "Oranges and Peaches" (Origin of Species).

So how did we come to call this phonetic phenomenon "mondegreen"?

It all started when a courageous woman named Sylvia Wright confessed to mishearing the following words from a Scottish ballad titled The Bonny Earl of Moray as:

Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands,

O where hae ye been?

They hae slain the Earl of Moray,

And Lady Mondegreen.

Imagine Wright's disappointment when she later discovered that there was no Lady Mondegreen who valiantly gave her life up to be with her love. The actual lines were "And hae laid him on the green." She wrote her story in the November 1954 issue of Harper's Magazine and ever since, we have labelled these occurrences in honour of Lady Mondegreen's sacrifice.

Of course, mondegreens existed even before there was a name for it. Ever since the first human opened his mouth and voiced a few grunts mondegreens must have been a part of the language. Earlier we called them "Excuse me?" In 1954 we gave them a moniker.

I imagine when the readers of Harper's Magazine read the story, they were pleasantly surprised, quietly mumbling to themselves, "Hmm, so there are other people like me!" But the use of the word mondegreen mostly lay in dormancy, just like Lady M, until the early 1990s. That's when the Internet began to emerge as the global water-cooler. Internetters started chatting using e-mail. They created Web sites for their pet topics and then it snowballed. People realized this affliction was all-pervasive.

The word serves a purpose, yet it doesn't find a place in the Oxford English Dictionary, the most venerable one around in the world of words, a true lex icon. So I asked John Simpson, chief editor of the dictionary, why they had never entered the mondegreen. He confessed that their files contain an example from 1973 from the San Francisco Chronicle and other more recent examples.

He added: "We enter words into the OED on the basis of the evidence we have collected through our monitoring of the language world-wide, and we decided several years ago that the time had come for us to work on mondegreen, amongst many other new words!"

As a founder of Wordsmith.org (http://wordsmith.org), an online community of word-lovers, I've been sharing the joy of words with linguaphiles worldwide since early 1994. Of the more than 2,600 words that I've talked about since its inception, no other word has evoked a larger and more sustained response. The anecdotes keep flowing in from Kenya, India, Belgium, and other countries on all continents. No matter what your native tongue, chances are you have experienced mondegreens in your language. Mondegreen is where language is.

During the Gulf War when the U.S. was bombing Baghdad, one child was heard talking: "Good dads are going to fight the bad dads."

How little children pronounce cystic fibrosis, has given a touching nickname to this genetically inherited disorder: "65 roses," as they know it, conjures up images that make it easier to say, if not any easier to bear.

On the other end of age-spectrum, many a grandparent is known to have "old-timer's disease," otherwise known as Alzheimer's.

A mondegreen is not all fun and games. There are times when it's the perfect device to save the day. John Roberts from the San Francisco-bay area spoke of the time when his former wife was making dinner and knocked a small pot of freshly made mashed potatoes onto the floor. Before she could stop herself from saying it, she uttered the F-word rather loudly. Moments later her toddler daughter dropped her fork and, just after it clattered on the floor, used the F-word with a similar vehemence.

Without missing a beat John picked it off the floor, held it in front of his daughter's face and said: "No, Jasmine, 'Fork.' "

Anu Garg (garg AT wordsmith.org) is the founder of Wordsmith.org, an online community (http://wordsmith.org) of word lovers in more than 200 countries.


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