I learned a new word today.

mondegreen [mon-di-green]: a word or phrase resulting from a misinterpretation of a word or phrase that has been heard

For the story behind the word, read this. I wasn’t familiar with most of the songs mentioned either in the blog post or the comments below, but I could easily think of some mondegreens of my own.

For instance, while I wasn’t confused by the words of the Pledge of Allegiance, I did have trouble with the song we always sang right after saying the pledge. Our teacher would play the starting note on the classroom piano, or on a pitchpipe, and we would all sing “My Country Tizuthee.” And at Christmastime there were the three kings from Orien Tar.

I don’t remember how old I was when I got a tape of songs by Simon and Garfunkel, but I loved listening to it. My favorites were “Sounds of Silence,” “Scarborough Fair,” and “The Boxer.” I don’t remember any specific mondegreens, but I’m sure I misunderstood some of the lyrics. I wouldn’t have known what a cambric shirt was – did I think it was a cattle red shirt, as some people do? Or a candle and shirt?

I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have understood about “a come-on from the whores” either. Did I think the boxer sometimes took comfort with a horse on Seventh Avenue? I would have assumed he was enjoying the animal’s companionship, and perhaps its warmth on a cold night.

When I was in the church choir in 9th grade, the choir director always made a big point about singing words clearly, overemphasizing the consonants so that they could be heard. As an example of how a line would sound otherwise, he pointed us to the last lines of the first verse of “The Church’s One Foundation.” Without proper aspiration of each H (one of the more difficult consonants to sing well, in my opinion), we would be singing “with his own bloody bawter, and forrer lifey died.”

Mondegreens become so established in our minds that they become very hard to dislodge. Recently my husband and my son were listening to “The Sing-Off,” and one group was singing Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” I only recently figured out that it wasn’t about the man in the middle, and I still have to concentrate to hear the lyrics properly, instead of what I’m used to hearing. I admit, the correct words make more sense with the line about “take a look at yourself.” But mirror still sounds like middle to me.

Watching Gilligan’s Island on DVDs recently reminded me how surprised I was the first time I saw the lyrics of the Ballad of Gilligan’s Island written out. The part sung at the beginning was clear enough, but in the verses sung at the end of the show was the line “It’s an uphill climb.” I didn’t remember that at all. After the line “They’ll have to make the best of things,” I always heard “It’s enough to pine.” As in “it’s enough to make you pine for being back home.”

I don’t feel too bad about that one, though. When Al saw me writing this post and asked what it was about, I sang the preceding lines and asked him to tell me what that line was. He wasn’t too sure – something about having to hitch a line, maybe?

Thinking about lyrics that I have trouble understanding, I remembered that I’ve never understood one line in “Albany,” a song I have liked ever since I first heard it on a friend’s Roger Whittaker album. I found the lyrics here, and learned that I was right to doubt that I had heard the line “Did raise an fire o’er Albany” correctly. (Why in the world would there be an “an” before a word starting with a consonant?) It’s supposed to be “Did raze and fire poor Albany,” which makes more sense, though it doesn’t change the meaning dramatically.

Interestingly, I discovered that I had misheard one other line – at least I think so. I found another website with lyrics to the song, and it agrees with what I always thought I heard: “Albany, proud symbol setting the highlands free.” But the first page I had found, which says at the top, “Back to Official Website” (which suggests to me that these lyrics are more likely to be correct), lists the line as “Albany, proud symbol set in the highlands free.” Hmm, I like my version better.

Collecting mondegreens has become very popular with the spread of the internet. If you need a laugh, just do a Google search on mondegreens. And just try and read all of these without laughing.


One Response to Mondegreens

  1. Peter L says:

    Then there is the joke about the Spanish speaking boy at his first American baseball game. He couldn’t see the field well, so they moved him to another seat. He had a problem there too, so they moved him again. He could see fine there. After the game, they asked him how he liked it. He said he was real impressed that everyone was so concerned about his predicament, as they all stood up and looked his way and sang, “José, can you see?”

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