Young Sylvia Wright
couldn’t bear the thought of the Earl o’ Moray dying alone.
The grown-up writer would later recall in Harper’s
that, as a child, she often heard her mother sing the 17th-century ballad “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray
The actual lyrics are: Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,Oh, where hae ye been? They hae slain the Earl o’ MorayAnd laid him on the green.
But Wright heard, tellingly: They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
And Lady Mondegreen.
Wright’s young imagination, and perhaps her empathy, resisted the idea of the Earl being left to perish in solitude, so instead, she made up a word to keep him company.
“Leaving him to die all alone without even anyone to hold his hand—I WON'T HAVE IT!!!”
So it was Wright’s stubbornness to accept the Earl’s lonely fate which thrust the term mondegreen into being, making the word mondegreen itself a mondegreen.
Wright continued, notably,
“The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.”
Apropos of Wright’s linguistic value judgment, there is a small discrepancy between the Wikipedia definition
of mondegreen and the Oxford English Dictionary
The OED defines a mondegreen as simply “a misunderstood or misinterpreted word or phrase resulting from a mishearing of the lyrics of a song.”
But Wikipedia goes a step farther to define mondegreen as “a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase as a result of near-homophony, in a way that gives it a new meaning.”
In other words, Wright was right: the point of mondegreens is that they are better words than what they were intended to be.
And what does it say about me that when a professor once read me the title of Marie Ponsot’s poem “Myopia Makes All Light Sources Radiant
,” I heard:
“My opium makes all light more radiant.”
Songs and poems—considered together as lyric—are particularly susceptible to, and intertwined with, the act of mondegreening.
Maria Konnikova notes
of the lyrical mondegreen in The New Yorker, “Songs and poems, in some sense, lie between conversational speech and a foreign language: we hear the sounds but don’t have the normal contextual cues. It’s not as if we were mid-conversation, where the parameters have already been set.”
Mondegreens are the result of misheard lyrics, yes, but they also produce new lyrics. In this way, mondegreens—by definition, better than the original—are of rich use to lyric.
(So you will not be surprised to hear that I once used “My opium makes all light more radiant” in a poem.)
Poetics have adopted mondegreening in quite intentional ways. The exercise of homophonic translation
thrusts a deliberate series of mondegreens between one language and another: a poet reads a poem in a language she does not speak, then rewrites what it sounds like in her native language.
As such, it is something of a homophonic-translative mondegreen when Paul McCartney sings “sont des mots qui vont très bien ensemble” and the English-speaking listener hears
“Sunday monkey won’t play piano song, play piano song.”
Mondegreens invoke a host of adjacent linguistic phenomena: the mishearings from which mondegreens derive spark a chain of crackling linguistic reactions, each individual to, and reflective of, the listener. All these linguistic phenomena—branches in the mondegreen’s family tree— represent ways in which we see the world not as it is, but as we are
There’s confirmation bias
, the mother of all mondegreening, which is “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's beliefs or hypotheses while giving disproportionately less attention to information that contradicts it.” (Related, perhaps by marriage: Zipf’s Law
There’s also the sororal oronym
, a string of words that can be reasonably interpreted in two homophonic ways: the way in which I scream and you scream for ice cream.
And there is the oronym’s fraternal twin, the eggcorn
, an idiosyncratic substitution that introduces a different, but related meaning: Alzheimer’s disease becomes old-timer’s disease.
Also present at the holiday table is the McGurk Effect
, perhaps a cousin, in which we hear what we see, not what we hear. Or the mind rhyme
, an often-bawdy deceased or phantom relation who makes us blush to utter “There was a man from Nantucket,” inferring what might come next.
I’m partial to the mondegreen’s adopted child, the malapropism, garbled in the mouth of The Sopranos’ Carmine Lupertazzi, Jr
. Or, for all intensive purposes, the mumpsimus
, longtime columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle who became, over the course of that tenure, an acknowledged mondegreen expert
and archivist, once observed
, “yes, mondegreens do reveal much about inner turmoil and psychological predisposition; indeed, a branch of divination called mondegreenomancy has yielded impressive results in early studies.” Scholar Steven Connor
called mondegreens “the wrenchings of nonsense into sense.”
Mondegreens reveal how we constantly interject ourselves into others: they are a minor linguistic solipsism, an inverted Freudian slip. They can be absurd, comical, but are just as often wistful: they are what I wish you said, what I couldn’t say.
In any context, the mondegreen insists upon the I in I thought you said, sometimes at dramatic expense, casting us all as unreliable narrators even of our own lived experience. In mondegreens, we reveal how enamored, or entrapped, we are with our own subjectivity, comically here, painfully there: the brain and ear hear one thing, then conspire, perhaps with the heart, to make it something better.
Laura Goode is a novelist, essayist, poet, producer, and screenwriter living in San Francisco.
She executive-produced the feature film FARAH GOES BANG
.Her first novel for young adults, SISTER MISCHIEF
, was released by Candlewick Press in 2011.
See more at www.lauragoode.com