Mistakes of the ear can both confound and amuse.
Most new television sets offer the hearing-impaired an on-screen text of what speakers are saying. This technology is in some cases based on speech-recognition programs – that means the words on the screen are a transcription of how the words sound. The results are sometimes confusing and often amusing.
For example, a character suggested that another should take Aleve, the painkiller. The words on the screen were “take a leave” – meaning get outta here already! The on-screen version of “the ultimate in convenience” was “the ultimate inconvenience.” I heard of another instance in which the speaker’s words must have been “many accidents on the highway,” because the words on the television screen were “maniacs see dents on the highway.”
Such mistakes of the ear are often called mondegreens. That curious word was coined in the 1950s by author Sylvia Wright, who recalled how she once misunderstood a line from a Scottish ballad titled “The Bonny Earl of 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 of the young, “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 this version of the 23rd Psalm: “Shirley, good Mrs. Murphy, shall follow me all the days of my life.”
The young sometimes cite a passage of the Lord’s Prayer: “and lead us not into Penn Station,” while others say: “and lead a snot into temptation.” Some kids performing MacBeth see the witches’ “double double toil and trouble” as “double double toilet trouble.”
That mondegreens often 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 quickly 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 were “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.
The best mondegreen in my own experience was created by a hotel clerk in 1989. My secretary at The Dallas Morning News had called to tell me we’d won a Pulitzer Prize. But the message the clerk handed me seemed at first to have something to do with a chicken casserole. “We want a pullet surprise,” it read. “Have some champagne on us.”
Paula LaRocque, assistant managing editor at The Dallas Morning News and the newspaper’s writing coach for 20 years, has retired from day-to-day duties at the newspaper. She continues to consult, however, and to write and train for The News. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.