Friday, September 13, 2013

The Delights Of Lady Mondegreen

                               “Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality” Joseph Conrad.

But then reality can be over rated.

While researching this blog, I realized that a few other sites have tread this path before ( Friday the 13th luck), but it's still worth a giggle...  

As a child, American writer Sylvia Wright used to like listening to her mother’s rendition of the Bonnie Earl of Murray from Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). Sylvia was very fond of this poem which includes the following stanza:

“Ye highlands and ye lowlands,
Oh, where hae you been?
They hae slain the Earl of Murray,
And laid him on the green.”

What Sylvia actually heard was one thing. Her brain retranslated the last two lines as

“they hae slain the Earl o Murray
and Lady Mondegreen.”
In Sylvia’s mind Lady Mondegreen was a tragic heroine, murdered alongside her husband by the clan Gordon in the late 1550s. It was only much later in life that Sylvia realised she had misheard the whole thing and her vivid imagination had done the rest.  Sylvia then wrote an article in 1954 for Harpers magazine called “The death of Lady Mondegreen” and so the term ‘Mondegreen’ was born. The definition of a Mondegreen is “the mishearing of a phrase in such a way that it is commonly understood to have an alternative meaning.”  They appear all over the place in. In literature? Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland. The master was an old turtle but called tortoise because he taught us. That doesn’t work at all in a Scottish accent but never mind.

The film Life Of Brian, Monty Python Sermon on the Mount scene;
‘blessed are the cheese makers.’
‘What’s so special about the cheese makers?’
‘Well it’s obviously not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.’

And some have moved into popular culture:
Ted Striker: ‘Surely you can’t be serious!’
Dr Rumack: ‘I am serious and don’t call me Shirley!’

There is a famous Scottish legal one which was reproduced in the letters page of the times. It’s from a Scottish solicitor and notary public,  who received a letter addressed to a Scottish ‘solicitor and not a republic.’

My Aussie friend tells me that their national anthem, (written in the late 1800’s but only became the national song in 1984 ) is actually ‘Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free.’ It is commonly and mischievously sung as ‘Australians all own ostriches, four minus one is three.’

My own Mondegreen is that famous line from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody ; “Spare him his life from these warm sausages” . I think Freddie actually wrote something about ‘these monstrosities.’ My pal has heard that sung as ‘ Spare him his life for a warm cup of tea.’

Madonna is a Mondegreen treasure trove. La Isla Bonita. ‘“Young girl with eyes like potatoes.”  Eyes like the desert I believe.  “Last night I dreamt of some bagels.”  Dreamt of San Pedro?  'I am a material girl' can be heard as 'I am a cereal girl'. And what about ‘Holiday. Celebrate!’ being  Mondegreened as ‘Hollandaise. Salivate!’  I  think that’s an improvement.

 Like many children I did think the Lords prayer went “Harold be thy name, thy kingdom come.” Until I was old enough to be able to read it.
My gran, slightly hard of hearing used to sing along to that great Donna Summer disco classic. ‘I’ve been mugged’….. I feel love.

The most famous Mondegreen of all is Desmond Dekker’s ‘The Israelites’ often heard as ‘Oh my ears are alight.’ Painful but amusing.

More songs that should have been written? ‘Like a bridge over trouble, Walter,’ by Simon and Garfunkel. ‘I can see clearly now Lorraine has gone,’ by Jimmy Cliff. One wonders if Lorraine was very overweight or just never cleaned the windows. ‘Strawberry fields for Trevor.’ Enough said. And poor Eva Peron. ‘Don’t cry for me, I’m the cleaner…'  And what about this country classic, ‘He’s a  vile stoned cowboy,’?

Famous Abba Mondegreens for Chiquitita, tell me what’s wrong? 
               Chicken tikka, tell me what’s wrong
                    Kick yer teeth in, tell me what’s wrong.  ( Works well as a duet that one!)

The Rev Sabine Bearing- Gould wrote Onward Christian Soldiers in 15 minutes at some point in 1864 and freely admitted that some of the rhymes don’t really scan. But he might still object to the Mondegreen ‘Onward Christian’s soldiers, march your ass to war.’

Medical Mondegreens are common place, probably due to the  unusual terminology  and the brain attempting to hone in on something more recognisable.
It’s the Heimlich manoeuvre – not the Heimlich remover. There was the man with the ‘baloney amputation’. Below knee amputation I might suggest. A letter in a medical journal  told of a hospital department regulated by ‘ Sir Michael Spears.’ The letter should have referred to ‘cervical smears’.   And fibroids of the uterus used to be ‘fireballs of the uterus’, now called firewalls of the uterus.

But then again, ‘the first  noel, the angel did say, was to surgeons and shepherds in fields as they lay.’
I did have a patient who was confused and trying to be helpful, she couldn’t remember the big long name but  she was on ‘Anti bi ollocks.’                                                    

When I was very wee, my reader at school was ‘New worlds to Conquer.’ It was full of stories of Thor Heyerdahl. Fab. Then I found this  story about the man himself when he was at the BBC and they arranged for a car to take him to the airport. Cars came and went, but none for him. One car whoever waited a long time. Then the driver was asked who he was going to pick up. ‘Dogs,’ he said. ‘I’m here for four Airedales.’
                                                                compare and contrast...

If you listen hard to Stevie Winwood ‘Bring me a higher love.’ He is actually singing ‘Bring me an iron lung.’

There was another reported by letter in The Times. A  medical secretary typed ‘jockstrap position’. The phrase that had been dictated was of course ‘juxtaposition’.  But food for thought.

The disease cystic fibrosis has the well-known euphamisim /Mondegreen ‘sixty five roses.’

And while we are on bodily parts. Adam Ant? Stand and Deliver?  'Stan, it’s my liver!'
                                                                        don and sancho

And what about these books that should have been written. Donkey hote.  Danger mouse liaisons. Catch one in the eye.

                                         just an excuse for a picture of a donkey cutey!

I think the one that might appeal most to the MIE bloggers comes from the author Monica Dickens. In 1964 she was at a book signing and a lady handed her a book. The woman said, as the author opened the page ready to sign,  Emma Chisit.  Monica signed the book, to Emma Chisit as she realized the woman had actually said, How much is it?

 Caro 13/09/2013


  1. I may chuckle or giggle on occasion, but almost never laugh out loud while reading. Your today's blog has been the exception, repeatedly!
    I laughed till I could barely breathe. Thanks!

  2. Great good fun, Caro! I'd never heard the term Mondegreen, but I've long enjoyed them. Songs, of course, are an incredibly fertile spawning ground, since few singers seem able to ennunciate (either that, or they chew tobacco while they perform).

    I used to work with a bloke who grew up thinking that a tall cabinet with drawers for putting clothes into was called a "Chester Drawers," and didn't realize that it was "chest OF drawers" until he was an adult.

    Another great one (at my wife's expense): she's an elementary school substitute teacher, college educated and all. At the end of one day's work, she was writing a note to the teacher she was sub'ing for, and was going to write something like, "I decided I misewell go ahead..." except she suddenly realized she wasn't sure how to spell 'misewell,' having only SAID the word, never actually WRITING it. She started searching the dictionary, to no avail. Finally, it dawned on her that the word she'd grown up hearing and using (and KNOWING what it meant!) was actually the phrase, "might as well." We still get a good chuckle out of that one periodically (always at her expense still, of course). It even caused us to search for the difference in usage of "might as well" versus "may as well." It's subtle, but there IS a difference.

    I misewell radish up, sew Jeff can make sum widdy fondue.

  3. I had a boss who always used to say "for all intensive purposes" - as opposed to wishy-washy ones, I suppose. He was also an "irregardless" man. And, of course, there is the famous warning from Mrs. Malaprop to visitors to Africa to beware "the allegories" in the Nile.

    As ostriches are indigenous to Africa, it must have been a bunch of South African ex-pats who butchered the national anthem.

    Please keep the Mondegreen's coming.

  4. Caro, I LOVE this. And it is wonderful to have a name for these funny misinterpretations. A family favorite for us is the Creedence Clearwater song "Bad Moon Rising." I was once listening to it with my granddaughters while cooking dinner, and they decided the band was singing "There's a bathroom on the right." (There's a bad moon on the rise.) We never sing it any other way now, and we giggle every time.
    Regarding butchered expressions, my husband once had a client in Omaha who would say things like, "Oh, that's water under the dam." or "He's still green behind the ears." One day David stumbled out of the man's office and was not able to breathe. The man's associate thought David was having a heart attack. But no. He was just trying to suppress his reaction when at a meeting of five people, his client said, "Don't worry about the negotiations, guys. I've got an ace up my hole, and I'm keeping it there." Enough to wake Lady Mondegreen from the dead.

  5. What havoc have you wreaked, oh Caro, in the 24 hours I've been traveling in commune avocado? I have no "ace up my hole"--love that one Annamaria, though I think it's more properly a Berra than a Mondegreen--despite Everett's suggestion that I try. And no, it's not deNile--that's in Egypt and I'm now by the Hudson--but I do have a story told to me by friend about himself. Brave man.

    He owned temporary employment agency in NYC and one day sent a young woman with a heavy Bronx accent off to work as a secretary for a new client. My friend freely admitted he was a bit of a snob and though a genuine good fellow believed he had to always appear in control to his staff. Anyway, the next morning he asked the woman what she thought of the new client. As he tells the story, "She shrugged, and without breaking stride in her gum chewing said, 'He's uhh, diqua.'"

    Diqua? he thought. What a wonderful word. I never heard it before, it's so descriptive. How did this seemingly unworldly young woman know such a word?

    Not wanting to show his ignorance, he said, "Yes, I agree, you chose the perfect word. He is tres diqua."

    To his credit he finishes the story as follows.

    "That got her to stop chewing her gum long enough to look me up and down and say, "What are you talking about? I said the guy's a dick wad.'"

    Diqua is now a fixture in my vocabulary. It has so many wonderful uses on more occasions than I care to think about.

  6. Of course there was the famous theme song from the US TV Series "Casey Jones". The song actually says "Casey Jones, steamin and a rollin'" - however here in Scotland it was invariably heard and repeated as "Casey Jones, Steven and the Romans..."