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Vol. 8, No. 6, 2009
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oh canada

Howard Richler



Howard Richler is the author of The Dead Sea Scroll Palindromes,Take My Words, A Bawdy Language, Global Mother Tongue, and Can I Have a Word with You? His next book, Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words, will be published by Ronsdale Press in March 2010.

Knock, Knock.
Who’s there?
Sam and Janet
Sam and Janet who?
Sam and Janet evening, you may see a stranger.

As every waggish (or puerile) individual like me knows some words and phrases resemble other words and phrases. In the above example, the tandem of “Sam and Janet” sounds like “Some enchanted.” In that same rich(ler) vein, I, (incurably puerile) make mention of the author Rushdie’s favourite song, Salman-chanted evening.

The French have raised this word play penchant to an art form by way of the holorime, a two-line poem in which both line are pronounced identically but use different words:
“Par le bois de Djinn, ou s’entasse de l’effroi”
“Parle! Bois du gin, ou cent tasses de lait froid.”

This loosely translates as “When going through the Djinn woods, surrounded by so much fear, keep talking. Drink gin or a hundred cups of cold milk.”

Far less poetically, the English riddle, “How do you prove in three steps that a sheet of paper is a lazy dog?” also conveys how phrases can sound similar; the answer: 1) a sheet of paper is an ink-lined plane; 2)an inclined plane is a slope up; 3)a slow pup is a lazy dog.

Usually, however, the similarity of sounds is not contrived and we simply mishear phrases.

So when I was growing up in the drug-hazed 60s, I pondered the identity of the enigmatic Leslie referenced in the popular song “Groovin” by the Rascals:

“You and me and Leslie”

Leslie, however, was a figment of my imagination, or more precisely of my imagined hearing. The lyric, I found out in later years was “You and me endlessly.”

I had been “mondegreened.” (“Mondegreen” is listed in the Oxford English Dictionary).

The term “mondegreen” was coined by writer Sylvia Wright in 1954. In an article in Harper’s magazine she wrote “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.” As a child, Wright had heard the Scottish ballad “The Bonny Earl of Murray” which she interpreted thus:

Ye Highlands and Ye lowlands
Oh where have you been?
They hae slay the Earl of Murray
And Lady Mondegreen.

Sylvia Wright was wrong in thinking that a double homicide had occurred. The “Lady Mondegreen” was a projection of her romantic imagination, for the last line in fact was not “Lady Mondegreen” but “laid him on the green.”

Children are particularly prone to this type of mistake, where an unfamiliar word or phrase is changed into something more familiar . This process has created some memorable “religious” personages such as “Round John Virgin” (instead of “round yon Virgin”); “Harold be thy name” (instead of “hallowed be thy name.” And “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear” (instead of “Gladly, the cross I’d bear”).

Many a familiar phrase has been mondegreened. A “dog eat dog” world has been rendered as a “doggy dog world;” “for all intents and purposes” has become “for all intensive purposes;” “duct tape” has turned into “duck tape;” and “no holds barred” has been phrased as “no holes barred.”

The majority of mondegreens seems to occur in the lyrics of songs. William Safire years ago cited an American grandmother who interpreted the Beatles’ lyric “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes” as “the girl with colitis goes by.” The lyric “Excuse me while I kiss the sky” from Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze was interpreted by some as “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.” Hendrix was aware of this misinterpretation and sometimes during a performance he would help perpetuate the misunderstanding by kissing a male associate after saying the line.

The obscure lyrics and indistinct pronunciation of many songs facilitates misinterpretations. On a website dedicated to misheard lyrics, I noticed that in Sarah McLachlan’s “Building a Mystery,” her lyric “you strut your rasta wear and a suicide poem” was interpreted as “you stretched your ass to where in a suicide home.” In the Aerosmith song “Dude Looks Like a Lady,” the titled lyric is somewhat squealed. I always thought the line was “Do the funky lady.” This website confirmed that I was not the only confused listener. Others had misheard this line as “Do the shockalayley,” “Do the rock-a lady” and “Doodoos like a lady.”

Some song lyrics are almost impossible to decipher. I suspect few people know that the lyric that follows “Willie and the Poor Boys are Playin’ (by Credence Clearwater Revival) is “bring a nickel tap your feet.” Small wonder that someone at this website reported hearing the lyric as “singing pickles can’t be beat.” Also misinterpreted by this musical group is the lyric “there’s a bad moon on the rise” which has been heard as “There’s a bathroom on the right.” Unilingual troglodytes claim to have heard the Beatles’ “Michelle, ma belle, sont les mots qui vont très bien ensemble, très bien ensemble” as “Michelle, my bell, some day monkey play piano song, play piano song.”

Some mishearings are somewhat incredible. Dylan’s line, “the answer my friend,” in Blowin’ in the Wind has apparently been interpreted entomologically as “the ants are my friends.” A Crystal Gayle song years ago was heard as “Doughnuts Make Your Brown Eyes Blue” and at the aforementioned website somebody claims to have heard the lyric from Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, “no dark sarcasm in the classroom” as “no Dukes of Hazzard in the classroom.”

Stephen Pinker in The Language Instinct says that the “interesting thing about mondegreens is that the mis-hearings are generally less plausible than the intended lyrics. He relates the anecdote of a student who heard the Shocking Blue song “I’m Your Venus” as “I’m your penis” and thus was amazed that it wasn’t censored.

For more of Howard Richler at Arts & Opinion:
As You Like It.
Can I Have a Word With You

The Significant Other Conundrum

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