Sunday, November 30, 2014

I'll Never Leave Your Pizza Burning: An examination of misheard words, phrases and lyrics, by Kathy Fischer-Brown

The English language is rich with idioms, odd turns of phrase, and regional colloquialisms. For a foreigner trying to learn English (whether it be of the American, British, or other variety), it can be a daunting task...even tricky…to say the least. Same with children just starting to talk. How we hear and interpret these words and phrases can often have a lasting effect on how we speak them.

Which brings me to one of most entertaining…and even amusing... of these curiosities of warped perception, the “mondegreen."

Coined in “The Death of Lady Mondegreen,” a November 1954 essay published in Harper’s Magazine, the mondegreen was writer Sylvia Wright’s explanation for misheard words in a favorite poem of her childhood. The Bonnie Earl o'Moray from Thomas Percy’s “Relics of Ancient English Poetry” contains the following:

Ye Hielands and ye Lowlands,
O, whaur hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o' Moray,
And laid him on the green.

To Ms. Wright’s young ears, the words sounded like this:

Ye Hielands and ye Lowlands,
O, whaur hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

To quote the author, "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."

Better? Judge for yourself.  How many of you, having listened to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon,” misheard a certain lyric as I did? (“There’s a bathroom on the right”surely useful information.) The Beatles were masters of creating mondegreens. For example: “The girl with colitis goes by,” "She's got a chicken to ride," and “All my luggage...” The Rolling Stones in "Beast of Burden" promise, “I’ll never leave your pizza burning” (I'd have no other guy). Annie Lennox had it right when she  promised, "Sweet dreams are made of cheese." And what about that cute, cuddly critter, “Gladly, the Cross-eyed Bear"? National anthems are not immune, and in this instance, more than true: “O, Canada, I stand on cars and freeze.” For all you Boomers, did you know that Davey Crockett was “killed in a bar when he was only three”? Let’s not forget The Young Rascals and their loving threesome, “You and me and Leslie.” But the most famous of all has to be Jimi Hendrix with his “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.” I could go on.... But I'm sure we all have our own personal mondegreens.

I first became acquainted with mondegreens in a hilarious 1978 article in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, titled “I Led the Pigeons to the Flag,” in which William Safire, tongue in cheek, stated that some guy named Richard Stans was the most saluted man in America. Despite his politics, I was a big fan of  Safire's "On Language" column, reading it religiously every week. This one, in which he tackles the "misheard," was arguably one of his best. He called the misinterpretation of words and phrases “false homonyms,” or “The Guylum Bardo Syndrome.” He presented a lovely thesis on how some misheard words and phrases have actually found permanence in our lexicon. He cited a few etymologies, such as the evolution of “spit 'n’ image”—often spelled now as “spitting image”and how “kit and caboodle” is sometimes written “kitten caboodle,” which he described as “a good name for a satchel in which to carry a cat.”

"Mondegreen" turned out to be Safire’s preferred label for this phenomenon of substituting perfectly reasonable words where the actual ones are ripe for misinterpretation. It also lends support to Wright's assertion that modegreens are, in many cases, better than the actual rendition. This is especially apparent as it applies to the poor Earl o’Moray.

Safire closed his brilliant piece by expressing how much more romantic and appropriate it is that, instead of simply being “laid on the green” to die a cold and lonely death, the earl had company. Perhaps he even held the hand of the beautiful Lady Mondegreen, “both bleeding profusely, but faithful unto death.”

Yes, I will agree with Sylvia Wright. Some mondegreens are infinitely better than the original.

Links to Sites Featuring Mondegreens

(Not by any means comprehensive)

Kathy Fischer-Brown is an author of historical fiction, whose novels are published by BWL Publishing, Inc. Find her at:

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