English is a very rich language. By that I mean that it possesses a large vocabulary and a flexible1 grammar which together make it possible for a speaker or writer to express shades2 of meaning with great precision. It is therefore3 eminently4 suitable5 for the scientist who may require great accuracy, the philosopher who needs to set out6 complicated theories and the poet who wants variety with which to express fully his or her artistry7. At the same time, it can be spoken by a child with simplicity and clarity.
Much of this versatility8 is due to9 its having borrowed words from numerous other languages over the centuries and unashamedly10 added them to its corpus11. While it is basically a Germanic language, it has been strongly influenced12 by the Romance languages, initially Latin and later Norman French13. The process didn’t stop there, of course. Close neighbours such as Vikings from Norway and Denmark contributed much, as did Scots and Irish, and it was only then that Old English began to emerge14 in a recognisable15 form.
As an island race16, the English are naturally seafarers17 and their voyages brought them into contact with many other peoples across the world. Even with a vast store18 of source material19, Shakespeare, writing at around the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries, found it necessary to invent hundreds of new words and his contemporaries20 added still more.
Colonisation of the Americas and the Indian subcontinent21 brought waves22 of previously unknown ideas and trade goods23, especially items of food. Former trading partners were absorbed24 into the British Empire, accompanied by their verbal baggage which was appropriated25 into the by now26 international language.
In this day and age, one might think the process of expanding27 the vocabulary complete and that we now have stocked28 our lexicon sufficiently to say anything it is possible to conceive29. But, on the contrary, new words are coined30 almost daily. In School English #10, Dr Rogozhina wrote about ‘Clerihews’, a word derived31 from the name of the person who first used that form of humorous verse.
Now I would like to tell you about one particular neologism that was invented just over half a century ago, for four reasons:
As the title of this article has already given away33, that word is ‘mondegreen’. The ever-helpful, on-line encyclopedia, Wikipedia, defines it as follows:
- because it seems to have been recently rediscovered by the media – one newspaper lists the words as one of ‘100 Things We Didn’t Know Last Year’;
- because its history is well-established;
- because I share a name – but, sadly, no relationship – with its coiner32;
- because I think you might find it interesting.
A mondegreen is the mishearing or misinterpretation34 of a phrase, typically a standardised phrase such as a line in a poem, or a lyric in a song, due to near homophony35, in a way that yields36 a new meaning to the phrase.
The American writer, Sylvia Wright, coined the term mondegreen in an essay “The Death of Lady Mondegreen,” which was published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1954. In the essay, Wright described how, as a young girl, she misheard the final line of the first stanza37 from the 17th century ballad “The Bonnie38 Earl O’Murray”.
“When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s ReliquesI and one of my favourite poems began, as I remember:
Ye39 Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain40 the Earl AmurrayII,
And Lady Mondegreen.”
The actual fourth line is “And laid him on the green.”
As Wright explained, “The point about what I shall hereafter41 call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.”
Other examples Sylvia Wright suggested are:
“Surely good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life” instead of “Surely goodness and mercy…” from Psalm 23; and,
The wild, strange battle cry “Haffely, Gaffely, Gaffely, Gonward.” (“Half a league42, half a league,/ Half a league onward,” from the famous poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “The Charge of the Light Brigade43”)
In 2008, the word was added to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
While children delight44 in mondegreens, many adults have their own collections particularly from popular music; and many have been seen in live television captions45 for impromptu46 speeches, interviews, etc. For example, a local news report of “a grand parade” might be captioned as “a Grandpa raid”.
Examples in song lyrics
- “Gladly the cross-eyed47 bear” from a line in a hymn: “Gladly the cross I’d bear”. This mondegreen has appeared as the title of a novel and in a pop song.
- “There’s a bathroom on the right” from the line at the end of each verse of Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival48: “There’s a bad moon on the rise”.
- “ ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” from a lyric in the song Purple Haze, by Jimi Hendrix49: “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky”. Both Creedence’s John Fogerty and Hendrix sometimes deliberately50 sang the “mondegreen” versions of their songs in concert.
- Misheard English song words may mean something entirely different and humorous in another language, eg51 the song “Can’t Buy Me Love” was announced in Russian as “кинь бабе лом”, which I am told roughly52 translates as “Throw a crowbar to the old woman”!
“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and into the hole he goes!”
- From the “Lord’s Prayer”: “Harold be thy nameIII” instead of “Hallowed53 be thy54 name”; and,
- Two children were conducting a burial service55 for their dead pet hamster56. They are supposed to have been overheard57 concluding with the words:
instead of the well-known doxology:
“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost58.”
Finally, two examples from my childhood:
1. Mairzy Doats, a 1943 novelty59 song, which works the other way around. The lyrics are already a mondegreen and it’s up to the listener to figure out what they mean. The refrain of the song repeats nonsensical60 sounding lines:
Mairzy dotes and dozy dotes and liddle lamzy divey
A kiddley divey too, wooden shoe (or “wouldn’t chew”).
The only clue to the actual meaning of the words is contained in the bridge61:
If the words sound queer62 and funny to your ear, a little bit jumbled63 and jivey64,
Sing “Mares65 eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy66.”
Now you can work out that the last line of the refrain is “A kid’ll eat ivy too; wouldn’t you?”, but this last line is only sung as a mondegreen.
2. One which we used to sing to the tune of Frère Jacques67:
Life is but a…, life is but a …,
Melancholy flower, melancholy flower.
Life is butter melon, life is butter melon,
We frequently varied the words according to our whims69, but I think you can see how it amused us as young children. Have fun listening out for more!
by David Wright (UK)
I Bishop1 Thomas Percy published ‘The Reliques’ in 1765. It contained 180 ballads in three volumes and 43 of the songs were drawn from an old folio2 which Percy just managed to save from being used to light a fire! He emended3 and adapted the originals and added other items from earlier collections by, ia4., Samuel Pepys. The Reliques were an important source and inspiration to many later writers and poets.
1 bishop – епископ; 2 folio – фолиант; 3 to emend – исправлять; 4 ia – (лат.) /inter alia/ среди прочих
II Phonetic rendering1 of the Scots’ pronunciations of ‘have’ and ‘of Murray’.
1rendering – интерпретация
III This is said to have originated from a Sunday school class when the teacher asked the children what God’s name was, expecting the answer, “Jesus”; but one boy answered “Harold” and explained his choice in this way.
1 flexible – гибкий
2 shade – тон, оттенок
3 therefore – вследствие этого
4 eminently – в высшей степени
5 suitable – подходящий
6 to set out – (зд.) излагать
7 artistry – искусство, мастерство
8 versatility – многосторонность
9 due to – в результате
10 unashamedly – бессовестно
11 corpus – основной фонд
12 influenced by – находящийся под влиянием
13 Norman French – норманнский французский (французский язык норманнов, переселившихся в Англию после 1066)
14 to emerge – возникать
15 recognisable – узнаваемый
16 island race – островной народ
17 seafarer – мореплаватель
18 store – запас
19 source material – первоисточники
20 contemporary – современник
21 Indian subcontinent – Полуостров Индостан
22 wave of – наплыв
23 trade goods – товары во внешнеторговом обороте
24 to absorb – поглощать
25 to appropriate – присваивать
26 by now – на настоящий момент
27 expanding – расширение
28 to stock – иметь в наличии
29 to conceive – воображать
30 to coin – выдумывать
31 derived – производный
32 coiner – выдумщик
33 to give away – выдавать секрет
34 misinterpretation – неверное истолкование
35 homophony – омофония
36 to yield – давать результат
37 stanza – строфа
38 Bonnie – Красавец (прозвище)
39 Ye – (устар. поэт.) вы
40 to slay – (книжн.) убивать
41 hereafter – в дальнейшем
42 league – лье, лига (мера длины, приблизительно равна 3 милям)
43 The Charge of the Light Brigade – Атака легкой кавалерии
44 to delight in – наслаждаться
45 caption – субтитр, надпись под изображением
46 impromptu – импровизированный
47 cross-eyed – косоглазый
48 Creedence Clearwater Revival – американская рок-группа, образовавшаяся в 1967 году и за пять лет существования добившаяся всемирного успеха
49 Jimi Hendrix – (1942-1970) американский гитарист, певец и композитор. Широко признанный как один из наиболее смелых и изобретательных виртуозов в истории рока.
50 deliberately – нарочно
51 eg – /exempli gratia/ например
52 roughly – приблизительно
53 hallowed – священный
54 thy – (устар. поэт.) твой, твоя, твоё, твои
55 burial service – заупокойная служба
56 hamster – хомяк
57 to overhear – подслушивать
58 Holy Ghost – Святой Дух
59 novelty – нововведение
60 nonsensical – бессмысленный
61 bridge – (муз.) связка (между куплетами и припевом)
62 queer – чудной
63 jumbled – путанный
64 jivey – (сленг. US.) (нарочно) вводящий в заблуждение
65 mare – кобыла
66 ivy – плющ (обыкновенный)
67 Frère Jacques – братец Жак (французская народная песня)
68 cauliflower – цветная капуста
69 whim – прихоть
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