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Mondegreens and eggcorns

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  April 8, 2007 02:54 PM

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In today's column on eggcorns, I only had space for a mention of mondegreens, those related (but different) misconstruals of poems and song lyrics.

The name mondegreen was coined by Sylvia Wright, in a 1954 Harper's magazine article where she explained her misunderstanding of an old Scottish ballad her mother used to read to her. "They hae slain the Earl Amurray / And Lady Mondegreen," Wright heard. As she pictured it:

He was lying in the forest clearing with an arrow in his heart. Lady Mondegreen lay at his side, her long dark brown curls spread out over the moss. She wore a dark green dress embroidered with light green leaves. . . She was holding the Earl's hand.

"They" had in fact slain the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green -- but Wright refused to correct herself: "I won't give in to it. Leaving him to die all alone without even anyone to hold his hand -- I won't have it."

I had often seen Wright credited with mondegreen, but I'd never seen the original article. Last week, however -- as Josh Glenn noted here -- Harper's put its archives online, all 157 years' worth, for the price of a subscription ($16.97 a year). So I zoomed back to 1954 and got acquainted with Wright's other mondegreens, like Good Mrs. Murphy (goodness and mercy), Pay Treats Day (that Massachusetts holiday), and the Donzerly Light of the Star-Spangled Banner.

(That same illumination, spelled "dawnzer lee light," would later puzzle Ramona, Beverly Cleary's beloved heroine, not just in English but also in French. In "Ramona la peste," the schoolchildren sing, "Oh voyez-vous, quand la lumiere de l'aube luit" ("Oh do you see, when the light of dawn shines"). But Ramona hears "l'aube luit" as the nonsense word "lobeluits," and decides -- as her English original did -- that it must be another word for "lamp.")

Popular songs, of course, have generated hundreds of mondegreens. In "The Enlightened Bracketologist: The Final Four of Everything," a line from Elton John's "Philadelphia Freedom" -- "a piece of Mama Daddy never had" (for "a peace of mind that Daddy never had")-- beats out other famous mishearings like John Fogerty's "There's a bathroom on the right" and the Beatles' "a girl with colitis goes by."

When I double-checked the lyrics at Kissthisguy.com, though, I found that the "correctors" had themselves used an eggcorn: they gave the real line not as "a peace of mind" but as "a piece of mind that Daddy never had," as if Daddy were a few bricks short of a load.

But then, mondegreens and eggcorns are sneaky little critters. There's even one on today's Ideas front, in the tease for "The Word," which makes me suspect that one of my editors was wantin' Chinese food last Friday: The column topic was wanton, but the cover line came out "Want, wonton, wont."

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1 comments so far...
  1. I wonder if a noun exists for logically formed non-existent words? My favourite example is from a Polish colleague of mine who spoke of Japanese investment in Poland in a "car mantling plant"
    To mantle - a lovely alternative to assemblage (-:

    Posted by Neil Meyrick July 23, 08 11:51 AM
About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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