Three Cheers for the Mondegreen

While listening to Radio 4 the other day, I swear I heard the announcer say that Austria had banned fish sales. I thought to myself, why fish sales? Isn’t Austria land-locked? Had their rivers become polluted? Then, as I listened to the rest of the report, the penny dropped. Not fish sales but face veils…the kind that some Muslim women wear. My ears were playing tricks on me…again. Yes, this sort of thing has happened before…and it’s got a name: Mondegreen.

The actual definition of a mondegreen is a ‘mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase as a result of near-homophony so that it gives it a new meaning.’ The word was coined by an American writer, Sylvia Wright, in 1954, when she misheard a lyric from the Scottish ballad, ‘The Bonny Earl o’ Moray’. Instead of ‘laid him on the green’, Miss Wright heard ‘Lady Mondegreen’. And so the mondegreen was born.

In researching the intriguing mondegreen , I found that they seem to crop up everywhere. Song lyrics provide a treasure trove of them. Evidently, Chaka Khan’s ‘I’m Every Woman’ was misheard by a number of Radio 2 listeners as ‘I’m Terry Wogan’. What I heard was ‘Climb every woman’. I mentally put an invisible comma after the word ‘climb’, so that the lyric was a rallying cry to women to break through the glass ceiling.

Remember the words to the Johnny Nash song, ‘I can see clearly now the rain has gone’? It was misheard by some as ‘I can see clearly now Lorraine has gone’. Then there’s the Credence Clearwater Revival lyric: ‘There’s a bad moon on the rise’ vs the mondegreen version: ‘There’s a bathroom on the right’. A particular goodie is the mondegreen for the song ‘Venus’. Instead of ‘I’m your Venus’…well, use your imagination.

Bob Dylan’s lyrics don’t escape mishearing, either. For ‘the answer, my friend (is blowin’ in the wind’), many people heard ‘the ants are my friends’. The Beatles’ lyrics qualify, too, with ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ where she is described as ‘the girl with kaleidoscope eyes’. This has been transformed into ‘the girl with colitis goes by’. Speaking of people going by…’The Girl from Ipanema goes walking’ ends up being ‘the girl with emphysema goes walking…’

I want to share with you a mondegreen that I actually created – even though I did not then know the term. During my summer holidays from uni, I had an admin job in a care home called Hawthorne Cedar Knolls. In addition to typing and filing, I had to give switchboard relief to the main operator. Back in those days, the switchboard was the kind with plug-ins – tricky but fun once you got the hang of it. On answering incoming calls, I was required to say ‘Hawthorne Cedar Knolls’. It was quite a mouthful which got rather boring to repeat constantly. So, occasionally, for my own amusement, I’d say, quite quickly, ‘Hawthorne seeded rolls’…I don’t think anyone was any the wiser.

There is no age discrimination with the mondegreen. A neighbour told me that when her son was in primary school, he came home complaining about something he’d found very difficult. He whinged, ‘It was like trying to get out of four knots.’ Bless! At such a tender age, he certainly wouldn’t have heard of Ft. Knox.

Children, with their limited vocabulary and experience, can misconstrue with the best of us. Christmas carols are a gold-mine of mondegreens. One child misheard the lyric to ‘Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer’. His alternative version to ‘all of the other reindeer’ was ‘Olive, the other reindeer’. The rather archaic language in ‘Silent Night’ – ‘round yon Virgin, mother and child’ –became the more contemporary ‘Round John Virgin, Margarine child’. I’m not entirely sure if the following mondegreen was accidental or deliberate when ‘O come let us adore him’ became ‘O come let us ignore him’.

Nowadays online shopping is a very big thing but remember when we used to do our mail ordering (not email ordering!) from very heavy catalogues that littered the sitting room, e.g. Littlewoods? A friend recollected listening to his daughter’s soulful rendition of ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina’. Instead of ‘But I chose freedom’, she sang, ‘But I chose Freeman’s!’

There is, of course, the classic military mondegreen. During World War I orders had to be sent via radio relays so each radio operator would listen to a command and then repeat it to the next operator. What resulted very much resembles the game, Chinese whispers. The original message was ‘Send reinforcements. We are going to advance.’ Passed down the line and repeatedly misheard, this became ‘Send three and four pence. We are going to a dance.’

I’ve been thinking of having my ears tested. Maybe my mishearing would be cured if I had hearing aids. But the thought of saying goodbye to those mondegreens which have enriched my life with their surreal messages makes me opt for the status quo.

So I say, here! here! for the mondegreen!

Or even better still… Hear! Hear!

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