November 28, 2014

Words of the Month - & Lady Mondegreen

        Everyone knows an example or two of misinterpreted lyrics or misheard phrases.  You may have heard of Gladly, the cross-eyed bear (“gladly the cross I’d bear”), and Olive, the other reindeer (“all of the other reindeer”) who have become famous.  You may even have wondered about the secret Asian man in the 1960's song “Secret Agent Man.”  I recall an incident years ago where someone thought I declared that I was working on a nudist play - which would indeed be quite a surprise to any who know me.  In fact, I’d said that I was working on “a new display” (of student artwork.)  In another case, teachers were discussing student schedules.  One said that “if he or she has an early lunch period…” and another teacher asked, “Who’s Hiroshi?”  So, who is Lady Mondegreen of my title?  She comes from writer Sylvia Wright’s interpretation of the ballad “The Bonnie Earl o' Moray.”  She heard lines as “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray, and Lady Mondegreen” when it actually should have been “… and laid him on the green.”  Wright thus coined the term mondegreen (in 1954) to describe new words or phrases that spring from such misinterpretations.
        Most mondegreens, including all my examples above, are funny, mere novelties laughed over by we who know better.  It’s not uncommon, however, for a mondegreen interpretation to change the lyrics of a song over time.  One example is the calling birds of the fourth Day of Christmas.  They originally were colly (black) birds, but as the word colly became archaic and unfamiliar, singers reinterpreted the sound as another word that seemed to make more sense.
        Coolest of all, it’s actually possible for a mondegreen to form a new, respectable, generally accepted word.  In the early nineteenth century, schoolchildren included the & sign at the end when reciting the alphabet.  To make clear that the “and” they were saying was a word in itself, it was called “per se and.”  That made the alphabet end “X, Y, Z, and per se and.”  That final phrase was heard by the children as “ampersand,” which gradually came to be accepted as a real word.  It’s attested in proper English usage from 1837.
        So as we begin to rev up the holiday season, if you’re a carol singer, enjoy all those holiday songs, from Olive the other reindeer and the four calling birds, to “Get dressed, ye married gentlemen,” and “with the jelly toast proclaim, Christ is born in Bethlehem.”  And as you sing, remember to enjoy the company of good Lady Mondegreen.

[Pictures: Donibristle House, where the Earl of Morey was slain in 1592, woodcut by unknown artist  (Actually, this house looks Georgian, and Donibristle House was set afire at the time of the murder in 1592, so it almost certainly wouldn't have been this building, but it’s the best I could do.  Image from When Raine Starts);
Four blackbirds singing, linocut by Ann Lewis, used with the artist's permission (Image from the artist’s web site).]


Pax said...

Thanks for these examples and for their descriptive name. Reminds me of "Lead on oh kinky turtle" (Lead on, oh Light Eternal) and Pogo's fractured carols from "Deck us all with Boston Charlie" to "Good King Wense the louse looked out on his feets uneven". Or was it Wens the Lout? I've misplaced my copy.

Pax said...

Oh, it should have been Lead on oh King Eternal.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

"Oh king eternal" sounds better. =)
Of course Pogo's silly songs aren't really mondegreens because they'e deliberate. They're also reverse: wrong words that are supposed to sound like the correct words. Another example is the classic fairy tale "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut." I myself once made up an entire reverse mondegreen version of the song "La Bamba."