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WORDSWORDSWORDS#8 ("Mondegreens")

Thought a humorous piece on language would be good for today. I didn't know the word "mondegreens" until I read a column in The New York Times by language maven William Safire. Safire was hired by the Times in 1973 to be a columnist with a conservative point-of-view for a liberal newspaper. His hiring was somewhat controversial because he had been President Nixon's speechwriter. In fact, he was the one who penned the attack on the members of the press given by Nixon's venal and corrupt vice-president, Spiro Agnew. The most memorable part of this scathing fusillade aimed at the members of the Fourth Estate was the alliterative descriptor "nattering nabobs of negativism".

Safire surprised me. I didn't always disagree with his views. And he wrote so well that I had to give him, somewhat grudgingly, a compliment here or there. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his trenchant commentary. Because he loved the English language so much, he proposed a column in 1979 called "On Language" that became an immediate fan favorite in every week's Sunday New York Times Magazine and stayed so until Safire's death in 2009.

Safire's fascination with the ways language evolves and changes over the years was a must read for those who recognize the power of the word. People wrote letters attacking his stance on one topic or another. He also developed a cult following who contributed research and posted queries. All his columns were collected in a series of bestselling books every few years.

Back to "mondegreens". A "mondegreen" is a word or phrase that results from having misheard a line in a song or in the spoken word. There are many examples. Some people, unaware of the word "varicose" have been known to refer to the ailment as "very close veins". Fans of Jimi Hendrix's classic song "Purple Haze" have often misinterpreted the line "Scuse me while I kiss the sky" as "Scuse me while I kiss this guy"! I've had a number of students write the phrase "for all intensive purposes" when they meant "for all intents and purposes".

The term "mondegreen" comes from an essay by Sylvia Wright in Harpers in 1954. She misinterpreted a line read to her by her mother from a Scottish poem which to her sounded like "Oh, they have slain the Earl of Moray and Lady Mondegreen". The written line was "Oh, they have slain the Earl of Moray and laid him on the green". Since then, word fanatics have collected the most famous and outrageous examples of "mondegreens", many coming from often indecipherable rock and pop lyrics. Little kids often mangle adult locutions, such as those in the Pledge of Allegiance, and are a never ending source of amusing phrasing.

A couple of famous examples of mondegreens include the line from The Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" that goes "the girl with kaleidoscope eyes". That has been mangled to become "the girl with colitis goes by"! Creedence Clearwater Revival wrote the line "There's a bad moon on the rise" that somehow morphed into "There's a bathroom on the right." The pious religious phrase "Gladly, the cross I'd bear" evolved into "Gladly--the cross-eyed bear"!

I'm sure you can come up with examples of song lyrics you've heard or even sung incorrectly for years. Now you have a name for them! Here are some of the more famous:


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