Miss! Here! Correction: Mishear

Posted by on April 15, 2009

© Gail Johnson / Fotolia.comIf you’re like me, you’ll have spent many years labouring under the misapprehension that Jimi Hendrix sang ’Scuse me while I kiss this guy in his 1967 hit, Purple Haze. But in fact he didn’t – what he actually sang was ’Scuse me while I kiss the sky. There’s a word for this sort of mishearing – a mondegreen.

The term was coined in 1954 by Sylvia Wright in an article in Harper’s Magazine. As a child, she misheard a line of a ballad that her mother used to recite to her:

They have slain the Earl of Murray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

As it happens, Lady Mondegreen was spared a violent death – in fact she never existed, the actual line being

And layd him on the green.

The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for mondegreen, and one of the four citations for the word is from Steven Pinker’s 1994 book The Language Instinct, where he says:

The interesting thing about mondegreens is that the mis-hearings are generally less plausible than the intended lyrics.

In the case of the Hendrix lyric, the mondegreen is probably more plausible (how can you kiss the sky?), but other mondegreens certainly bear out Pinker’s contention. One of the most famous mondegreens is from a hymn: Gladly my Cross I’d bear being misheard as Gladly, my cross-eyed bear. And a Jack Bruce song, White Room, contains a reference to restless diesels. The eponymous White Room is “near the station”, so diesels are hardly an unsurprising reference, but undeterred by common sense or logic I constantly misheard it as an exhortation to rest those easels until I came across the lyrics in printed form.

A fellow blogger on this site was convinced that Davy Crockett was King of the wild front ear, and had to grapple with the notion that someone not only had front and, presumably, back ears, but that at least one of the front ears was in some way rather unruly.

A very recent mondegreen is vividly illustrated in this clip on YouTube.The song is a 1975 ballad sung by Eric Carmen, called … well, if you don’t know it, see if you can work it out yourself.

As well as song lyrics, ordinary turns of phrase are subject to mishearing and become entrenched in people’s idiolect. I had a colleague many years ago who described a bizarre person as being as odd as the hills, a rather innovative variation on the expression as old as the hills. And one of the stranger manglings is the expression ten to the dozen instead of nineteen to the dozen. Here, Pinker’s maxim that the mondegreen is less plausible than the original is certainly in evidence. Nineteen is a larger number than a dozen, so nineteen to the dozen obviously describes an excess of something. But ten to the dozen? You’re being short-changed. Or perhaps, with rising sea levels, you’re being shore changed.

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Comments (2)
  • A Spanish friend of mine believed for many years that if she wasn’t able to do something it was polite to say “I can’t be asked”, as so many of her English colleagues used this term liberally. She was rather chastened when someone told her what they had actually been saying…

    Posted by Spinnaker on 15th April, 2009
  • I grew up believing that Eric Clapton was singing about croquet.
    ‘If you got bad news, you wanna kick them blues … croquet’!
    I still hold the game in my mind as a sort of panacea …

    Posted by Laine Cole on 2nd November, 2009
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