Sunday, February 6, 2022

Slips of the Ear: Homonyms, Oronyms, Homographs, and Mondegreens

 Zoë Sharp

I like unintentional humour, and a good deal of amusement can be had from slips of the ear—words misheard, misinterpreted, or simply misunderstood. I’d no idea, though, until I started looking into the subject, how many different words there were to describe this phenomenon, so I thought I’d share some trivia with you.


First up is a Homonym, which is when two or more words have the same sound or spelling, but differ in meaning, from the Greek ‘same name’.

A nice example comes from ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND:


“Mine is a long and sad tale!” said the Mouse, turning to Alice, and sighing.


“It is a long tail, certainly,”’ said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse’s tail; “but why do you call it sad?”

Homonyms are closely related to Homographs and Homophones.

Homograph is one word that is spelled exactly the same as another, but which not only has a different meaning, but often a different derivation as well. A Homograph can also be a Hetronym, from the Greek ‘other named’. A good example is the word ‘sewer’, meaning both a place for sewage, and someone who sews. The derivation of the former is from the Latin, meaning related to water, but the derivation of the latter is from the Sanskrit meaning thread or string.


Occasionally, Homographs are spelled identically, but pronounced differently according to the meaning, hence:


“When I tear my fingernail, I shed a tear.”

Whereas Homophones are two words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings. Such as:


“I shed a tear as I watched him climb onto the top tier of the podium.”


Although, come to think of it, both Homographs and Homophones could fall into the overall category of Homonyms.


Confused? Stick around.


Then we get to Oronyms, which is apparently a word invented by Gyles Brandreth, and quite frankly I wouldn’t put it past him. An Oronym is a sequence of words that sound the same as another, with endless comic possibilities. The brain hears speech not as individual words but as an overall flow which it has to try to interpret, and what with accents and mispronunciation and slang, it’s hardly surprising that occasionally we get it wrong.


“The stuffy nose can lead to problems.”

“The stuff he knows can lead to problems.”


Actually, one of the best examples I can give of Oronyms at work is the Macho Grande courtroom scene in Airplane II: The Sequel movie:

Cause for confusion


Then there are simply many words that are easily confused, and among the most common are:


Accept – to receive or take in

Except – other than


Lead – metal

Led – past tense of to lead someone or something in a given direction


Rein – means of controlling a horse

Reign – the rule of a monarch


Principal – the head of a school, person being protected by a bodyguard

Principle – a rule or guideline


Throne – a ceremonial chair of a monarch, bishop, or similar

Thrown – propel with force through the air by movement of the hand and arm


When it comes to song lyrics, the human ear has even more fun and misinterpreting words. The mishearing of words in a song is so common that American writer Sylvia Wright coined a term for it taken directly from her own experiences when as a child she misheard the words of the ballad ‘The Bonny Earl O’Moray’:


“Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands

Oh, where hae ye been?

They hae slain the Earl O’Moray

And Lady Mondegreen”


The last line should actually have been ‘And laid him on the green’ but for years Ms Wright believed that the unknown Lady Mondegreen had met a similar fate as the Earl O’Moray and came up with the name Mondegreen to describe it.


Since then, of course, the practice has been rife, with one of my childhood favourites being the Kenny Rogers song, ‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille’. For years I heard this as:


“You picked a fine time to leave me, loose heel.

Four hundred children and a croc in the fields”


The Jimi Hendrix song, ‘Purple Haze’ contains the line:


“Excuse me while I kiss this guy”


So many people thought this was the genuine line, that he actually sang the alternative version in concert.


And, of course, who can forget The Eurythmics’:


“Sweet dreams are made of cheese”


I recall a friend telling me about the visually impaired ursine she heard about in church:


“Gladly, the cross-eyed bear”


And another mentioning that her mum used to swear there was a line in ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ by The Beatles, that went:


“The girl with colitis goes by”


Or that other classic by The Beatles:


“She’s got a chicken to ride”


But I think my favourite in recent years has to be the modified lyrics to the Bond theme, ‘Skyfall’. Let’s have a rousing chorus of:


“Make a tri-fle, make a crum-ble

Build my cake tall

And we’ll eat it all together

All it needs is cake. Now, doesn’t that make you feel better? So, what are your favourite examples of any of the above? Let’s hear ’em!


No Word of the Week this week. I think you’ve had quite enough.


  1. I love blogs like this! When I was at University, I participated in some studies on polysemy, which is much the same your homograph - The existence of words with multiple meanings. No cheating now! No Google. What is the most polysemous word in the English language?

    1. I am not sure precisely what “most polysemus” means, but I have always thought “read” and “read” must be the most confusing for newcomers to English since they are identical but are the present and the past tense of the same verb. Only the context Of the sentence tells the reader which is meant.

    2. Hi Stan. Ah, I had already looked up that very question when I was writing this. The word with the most different meanings is 'set'. Over 400 of them, apparently...

    3. Hi Annamaria. It would make more sense if it was 'read' and 'red', wouldn't it? Apparently 'lose' and 'loose' are often confused as well.

  2. My favorite is from the Creedence Clearwater song “Bad Moon Rising“, which a wacky friend of mine thinks ends:

    “Don’t go out tonight.
    It’s bound to to take your life.
    There’s a bathroom on the right.”

    It does rhyme!!

    1. I came across that one, Annamaria! Always good to know where to find the nearest bathroom...

  3. Wonderful column, Zoë! I do, love words, put to gather inch urchins. I mean, I do love words put together in churches. I thank. Ummm... I think.

    1. Thanks, EvKa, and my apologies for the slow response -- for some reason Blogspot kept telling me it was broken and wouldn't let me reply to comments.

  4. The answer to my question above is that the little word 'set' has more meanings than any other in English - as a verb, a noun, an adjective, and probably other parts of speech. Over 200 different meanings, they say. I won't ask you to list them!

    1. Hi Stan, sorry for the overlap with my reply to your first comment before I'd got as far as this one. Amazing that one word can have so many meanings, isn't it?

  5. I just marvel at how you continue to come up with these dynamite topics, Zoë. I'm still laughing at the "Airplane the Sequel" clip. As for words, I'm still wrestling with learning to spell supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.