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Kiss this guy!

by Mellissa Martinez

There comes a time in every mother’s life when she makes that fatal error and belts out a tune in a car full of kids, just to have her teenager glance with a condescending and embarrassed stare: “…uh, mom…that’s not how it goes.”

Yes, of course, we moms aren’t as dumb as we might seem. We know when the words don’t quite match the song, but we’ve got babies, work and soccer schedules to worry about. Why stress about a few unknown phrases? Well, fellow moms, it turns out that we are not the only ones to make this mistake. Many people botch song lyrics on a regular basis. In fact, the practice is so common, that it has a name—mondegreen.

Linguists, it appears, do have a sense of humor. There are websites and entire book chapters devoted to these silly slips of the tongue. The word ‘mondegreen’ was first coined in Harper’s Magazine in the early 1950s, when the author described her childhood misunderstanding of a poem that her mom often read to her.

When her mom read, “They had slain the Earl O’Moray and laid him on the green,” the young girl believed, wholeheartedly, that they had slain Earl O’Moray and Lady Mondegreen. Hence, a new linguistic term was born. A ‘mondegreen’ is a word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said and often sung.

If you think hard, you probably have mondegreens from childhood hanging around in your subconscious. As a young girl, I thought The Beatles sang: “Well, she looked at me, and all I could see, in the parking lot, I fell in love with her.” There was also Jimi Hendrix’s confusing, “scuse me while I kiss this guy,” and Bob Dylan’s, “The answer, my friends…” became “The ants are my friends, they’re blowing in the wind.”

Let’s face it, Elton John is responsible for a whole slew of mondegreens: “Hold me closer, Tony Danza;  Goodbye yellow brick road, where the dark clouds inside of the house (I still don’t know what that song says); I’m a rocket man, burning all the trees of every lawn;” and on of my all time favorites, “She’s got electric boobs, a mohair suit, you know I read it in a magazine!”

Linguist, Stephen Pinker, writes about mondegreens in his book The Language Instinct. He points out that they conform to English phonology, syntax and vocabulary. Apparently, listeners lock in to a set of words that fit the sound and often go together regardless of plausibility. Although most mondegreens are generally less plausible than the original sentence or lyric, once we have them stuck in our heads, they’re hard to shake.

When a mondegreen from a word or phrase has been around long enough, it has the potential of becoming an eggcorn. This is a lot like a pun, but unlike a punster, the speaker usually isn’t aware that he’s making a mistake. The word ‘eggcorn’ was coined by a linguist in 2003, when he saw that an unsuspecting woman had written ‘acorn’ as ‘eggcorn.’ It refers to the idiosyncratic substitution of a word or phrase with one that sounds identical. Some examples are ‘curled in a feeble position,’ ‘ex-patriot,’ ‘for all intensive purposes’ and ‘in lame man’s terms.’

Linguist and professor, Geoffrey Pullum, writes, “It would be so easy to dismiss eggcorns as signs of illiteracy and stupidity, but they are nothing of the sort. They are imaginative attempts at relating something heard to lexical material already known.” Yes, they may be ‘mind-bottling’ and ‘jar-dropping,’ but remember when incorrect words or misspellings are used widely and by many, they have the potential of making their way into standard English.

The next time your kids give you an eyebrow raise for singing out loud, tell them that it takes the ‘upmost courage’ to sing out loud in a car full of teens and they ought to be listening with ‘wrapped attention.’ Also, you can rest assured that they too will have their day—nobody escapes using eggcorns and mondegreens, or turning into their mother, for that matter.

 

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