Words and Phrases: Of Mondegreens and Mishearings

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Blame the mishearing, blame the accent, blame the frame of reference – these give rise to mondegreens.

“According to the word watcher William Safire of The New York Times, the term mondegreen dates from a 1954 magazine article by Sylvia Wright in which she said she had misheard the folk lyric ”and laid him on the green” as ”and Lady Mondegreen,” says nytimes.com

Simply defined a mondegreen is a phrase that comes about because of mishearing. Somewhere in the complex auditory process, the brain attaches to a sound or word formation that makes sense.

Many, if not most mondegreens owe their origin to songs. Lyrics have been prolific in their contribution to brand new phrases, never intended.

Words of songs may be misheard because of other distracting elements in the track, and if your first perception is auditory, not affording a lip-reading opportunity to confirm, the message to the brain is absorbed with the tools available to you at the time.

These include, what you hear, or more accurately what you think you hear, based on your traditional, deeply embedded frame of reference, or a topic recently discussed.

Here are some of the most well-known mondegreens from songs thanks to uh.edu

Queen, We Will Rock You

‘you’ve got mud on your face, front disc brakes’ from ‘you’ve got mud on your face, a big disgrace’

The Police, Don’t Stand So Close to Me

‘a year has passed since I broke my nose’ from ‘a year has passed since I wrote my note’

Pink Floyd, Another Brick in the Wall

‘no dukes of hazard in the classroom’ or ‘no dogs orgasm in the classroom’ from ‘no dark sarcasm in the classroom’

My own version at six-years old: ‘Dogs are hazards in the classroom’

Other than songs, speech itself, unfamiliar accents, or inflections that differ from our own have their place in mondegreen creation. The additional complication is that our style of speaking is run-on rather than staccato.

Experiences of mondegreens are many and as you become aware of this peculiarity you will notice them popping up all over.

I once went on a date with an Israeli. He took me to dinner in China Town for authentic Chinese food. He wasted no time in taking charge of the order and told the waitress the main course and asked her to add ‘bincurl’. At first the waitress questioned the ‘bincurl’ but it soon became clear, the two understood each other perfectly.

When the steaming plates arrived, I realised that the order was for bean curd.

“Mondegreens are funny, of course, but they also give us insight into the underlying nature of linguistic processing and how our minds make meaning out of sound. In fractions of seconds, we translate a boundless blur of sound into sense. It comes naturally, easily, effortlessly,” says Pamela Licalzi O’Connella writing in www.newyorker.com

“And why not?” asks www.nytimes.com. “Some mondegreens are no more nonsensical than the original words and are often easier to sing. Having heard ”clown control to Mao Zedong,” who wants to switch back to ”ground control to Major Tom?”

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