Sunday, September 24, 2006

They hae slain the Earl O'Murray and laid him on the green

The mondegreen is a phenomenon I discovered long before I learned its name, when I sang 'There is a land where southern skies / are gleaming with a thousand eyes' all the way through primary school before discovering my mistake.

A mondegreen, for anyone who doesn't already know this, is a creative mishearing of sung lyrics in which the brain, struggling to make sense of signals from the ear (in much the same way as it struggles to make sense of signals from the eye when you come out into the kitchen one morning to find there's water running down the walls because the hot water service has exploded: no no, says the brain, there must be a less expensive explanation), comes up with a mishearing that changes the original meaning but still makes at least a modicum of sense. Hence, instead of the correct but much duller 'thousand dyes', my apparently paranoid infant ear came up with 'southern skies are gleaming with a thousand eyes', an image that when I think of it even now, much less then, sends shivers up my spine.

But to the mondegreen. The traditional ballad The Bonnie Earl O'Murray contains the line 'They hae slain the Earl O'Murray and laid him on the green', misheard by the woman who coined the word as 'They hae slain the Earl Amurray and Lady Mondegreen.' Mondegreens usually rise from unfamiliarity with the words, concepts or syntax of the original, hence the best ones tend to come from children, particularly when struggling with the traditional language and stories of Christianity: the teddy called 'Gladly the cross-eyed bear', or that Christmas favourite, 'A Wayne in a Manger'.

Kids in particular tend to insert proper names, a way of making lyrics familiar by innocently inserting people they know: still on Christmas, we have 'Barney's the king of Israel' and 'Olive, the other reindeer', while in more patriotic mode there's 'José, can you see?'

The Wikipedia entry for 'Mondegreen' offers this meta-example:

'"It's hard to wreck a nice beach" ... originates in a story, perhaps apocryphal, about one of the earliest speech recognition programs being presented, at a demo, with someone saying "It's hard to recognize speech" and producing that phrase as the output. Regardless of the truth of the story, this mondegreen was used on a t-shirt given to Apple engineers who worked on the company's early speech-recognition software.'

And regardless of the truth of the mondegreen too, apparently. While 'It's hard to wreck a nice beach' makes perfect grammatical sense, it is obviously and demonstrably untrue: it is in fact fatally easy to wreck a nice beach. I've seen it done many times.

But when the erudite Tigtog left a comment a few posts back about eggcorns, and the equally erudite Laura posted a link to Language Log for further reference, I had no idea what either of them was talking about and had to go and investigate at once.

The eggcorn, it transpires, is a close relative of the mondegreen: again arising from unfamiliarity with, at least, the written version, an eggcorn is another sense-making operation in which you write down what you think you heard, aided (as with the mondegreen, and indeed with all folk etymology) by a kind of slippage of meaning in which the new version does make some kind of sense. An acorn is, after all, shaped sort of like an egg, and is, after all, a 'corn' or seed of an oak.

The difference between a mondegreen and an eggcorn is that the eggcorn does not depart from the original meaning, or at least not very far. I used to see a lot of eggcorns in my academic days: 'reigned in' for 'reined in' (both are to do with control) and 'honed in on' for 'homed in on' ('hone' being about sharpening things, including, presumably, focus) were the two most common.

My first encounter with someone else's eggcorn took place only a few metres from the Curramulka Primary School assembly site -- birthplace of the thousand gleaming eyes -- on the netball court, when a classmate insisted that the ball had gone out a bounce. Horrible pedantic infant that I was, I corrected her at once: 'Out of bounds,' I said schoolmarmishly. She stood her ground. She didn't know the word 'bounds' and as far as she was concerned the ball was out a bounce, because it had bounced out.

And for all I know, she's still saying it. I'm still singing 'summer skies are gleaming with a thousand eyes', after all.

20 comments:

Zoe said...

What a lovely Sunday afternoon post.

My first husband used to think The Smiths were singing "Will Neitzsche make a man of me yet?" instead of "Will nature ..."

He also made up the word "cockstrong" which describes a particular kind of man very well, I think.

elsewhere said...

I think I must have a permanently mondegreenic brain as I probably misremember more lines of songs than I remember (not that I think of any examples off the top of my head -- which might be why), as well as scrambling names for things and people.

Pavlov's Cat said...

'Cockstrong' is ... well, there are no words. It reminds me of another excellent mondegreen I forgot to include in the post: 'He's got the whole world in his pants.'

That one also sounds like a particular kind of man. The same particular kind of man.

Liam said...

It's not just music. I refer you to the works of Professor Afferbeck Lauder.
...
My favourite musical one is just as Strine: "Cheap wine and a three-legged goat, uh-huh-huh, cheap wine and a three legged-goat..."

Laura said...

I like "our land abounds with nature strips." Read recently on a blog somewhere - apologies for forgetting whose child brought this one home, it's excellent.

Anonymous said...

An old friend who picked up English as a third language used to refer to his "elbone" or "L-bone". Isn't this the perfect eggcorn! It scores extra points because both the word and the referent are absolutely commonplace.

Miss Tickle said...

My son uses "sunscream" and thinks the TV is controlled by "demote control".

Miss Tickle said...

Oh, and my favourite mondegreen is
"does she still love me? she still has my donkey" (door key) in Billy Bragg's 'The Short Answer'.

shula said...

Funny you should post this. I only learnt about the mondegreen (and the orgin thereof) 2 days ago. I always called them 'kissthisguys', from the website, www.kissthisguy.com (mondegreens of rock music). Not having the mondegreen in my vocab, I was obliged to work with what I had.

Did you know that the Pompetus of Love really is just that?

'A thousand eyes' is infinitely preferable, by the way.

Our favourite family mondegreens are from my daughter:

101 Allmasons (instead of 101 Dalmatians)

and The Hunchback of Natural Down.

But she was 3 at the time.

Oh, and Miss Tickle? We also had sunscream, but our remote is still known, to this day, as The Emote.

Mark Lawrence said...

I love your post, and the comments thrown in. Lately, though, my preoccupation has been with what comes out of my mouth, rather than what goes in my ears. It's what I call my 'verbal dyslexia'.

To make matters worse, my son has started picking up on the and correcting me! Thanks. Now I can blame it on his mondegreens…

Kate said...

My fave mondegreen: 'there's a bathroom on the right', instead of 'there's a bad moon on the rise'. Or 'we built this city on sausage rolls' instead of 'we built this city on rock 'n' roll'.

Is this an eggcorn? My little brother, aged 3, who declared he had found an 'arsegroper' in the backyard when what he really meant was a grasshopper. Still cracks me up 15 years later.

Helen said...

Never go to Language Log. You will disappear in there for hours.

Like this post. I never knew about the anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier.

kate(2) said...

My friend's nephew proudly announced to his Nanna that he'd "learned a prayer: Hail Mary, full of grass".

A friend spent all of prep singing (with gusto, and I was too amused to correct him) "Australians all eat ostriches".

Susoz said...

I'm not sure what this can be categorised as, linguistically speaking, but since he was three, my now-seven year old has been referring to individual soldiers as "armies". I find this so amusing ("look, there's an army" he'll say, as one man in uniform walks past) that I haven't corrected him.

Anonymous said...

When I was working as a sub-editor I actually came across one that I had believed until then was mythical: 'A fine toothcomb'. I'm not sure into which category it fits, but it gave me such a great mental image that I was almost sorry to correct it.

My little girl told me that at her school, they had put down 'sympathetic grass'. She meant synthetic, of course, but again - lovely imagery.

One of her classmates, a little boy, told his teacher that when his grandpa died, his family had to bury him because 'it cost too much to have him castrated'.

And my very favourite 'Irish' joke: A Pommy overseer on a building site sees an Irishman approaching, cloth cap, corncob pipe, etc. The Irish guy asks if there's any work going. 'My good man,' says the Englishman, 'You don't look like you could tell the difference between a girder and a joist.' 'I can, too!' says the Irishman, 'The first wrote "Faust" and the second, "Ulysses".

Anonymous said...

This post and the comments are gold. Here's another little ingot:

Many years ago I was looking at a child's drawing of the crucifixion. She'd drawn the cross tilted about 45 degrees (resembling an X) and there were red flashing lights and what looked like boom gates. When questioned she explained that Jesus died on the crossing for our sins...

Mikhela said...

When my (non-Anglo) aunt had to go into hospital, she explained that she had to have some 'very close veins' removed.

Zoe said...

and a Sydney fashion label was called "I peck you pun", from the designer's Spanish mama's version of "I beg your pardon"

Miss Tickle said...

I've seen at least three instances of "grin and bare it" this week.

Ena said...

Anyone care to explain to me wtf... the phrase "a whang-dang-doodle" means?