Comedy of Errors

When I was young, I had an audio cassette of Christmas carols that I played until the magnetic tape literally disintegrated. The archaic vocabulary featured in many of those songs went over my four-year-old head, and my unconscious response was either to ignore it as language only adults could understand or to reinterpret the lyrics according to my limited mental word bank. Due to a quirk of pronunciation particular to the studio singer on that tape, for a long time I sincerely thought there was a song called “Got Dressed, You Merry Gentlemen.” Probably not many people have ever made this mistake, but then again, probably not many people, if hard pressed, could explain what the actual phrase means. It took a few years for me to realize my error, but it wasn’t until I began studying linguistics that I realized the error had a name: by confusing those lyrics I had committed a mondegreen.

I may have been in scarce company with that particular song, but most people have had some experience with mondegreens. So many song lyrics have been misheard over the years that there are websites devoted to collecting them (try Am I Right). One of the most famous mondegreens involves the 1967 psychedelic rock song “Purple Haze” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, in which the last line of the hook is sung “’Scuse me while I kiss the sky.” At eight years old, after only one listen of the 45 single from my dad's vinyl library, I joined the millions who have misinterpreted Hendrix’s lyric as “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy.”

The word mondegreen was coined by writer Sylvia Wright in an essay for Harper’s Magazine in 1954. She recalled that when she was a young girl her mother would read to her from a book of old British poetry, her favorite piece being the 17th-century Scottish poem “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray.” The first stanza of the poem ends with the lines “They have slain the Earl o’ Moray / And laid him on the green,” but young Sylvia Wright thought the final phrase was “And Lady Mondegreen.” After years spent picturing the Earl o’ Moray dying hand in hand with his lover, the poor Lady Mondegreen, Wright declared in her article that any misheard lyric, being perhaps even more intriguing or poignant than the real one, should take the name of her imaginary Lady.

It’s every bit as common to do this with lyrics in another language. The Japanese like to make a game of searching out misheard foreign lyrics in imported pop songs. They call this soramimi (literally “air ear”), nowadays the general term for misinterpreting a lyric sung in a language other than your native tongue. It’s a natural human tendency to reframe unfamiliar input in a way that can be more readily accepted. Behind this phenomenon is the psychological concept known as pareidolia, whereby the mind looks for a familiar sound or image in a random collection of visual or auditory stimuli. Just think of the Man on the Moon, or that face you thought you saw in the burn pattern on a grilled cheese sandwich! It also explains why you think you heard your dog bark “I love you!” 

Pareidolia underlies a number of other linguistic errors. When a person substitutes a word with another that sounds identical or similar, but which still makes sense to the speaker, this is known as an eggcorn. Maybe you’ve heard people say “for all intensive purposes” instead of the correct “for all intents and purposes,” or “supposably” instead of “supposedly.” Calling a praying mantis a “preying” mantis, just like saying “morning” dove instead of mourning dove, is a form of this error based on perfect homophones. Sometimes the substitution is not so similar. I had a friend in middle school who for some reason almost always replaced the word either with the word "order." He would say things like “Order my mom or my aunt will go trick-or-treating with us.” I’ve never met anyone else who exhibited that exact idiosyncrasy, but nevertheless it’s a kind of eggcorn. The term itself comes from a case cited by linguist Mark Liberman on the linguistics website Language Log; he referred to a woman who consistently substituted the phrase "egg corn" for the word "acorn" and wondered what to call this phenomemon. In response, Scottish linguistics professor Geoffrey Pullum suggested the word itself. An important thing to keep in mind is that “egg corn” is not an unreasonable thing to call the nut of an oak tree, considering its shape and size. 

An eggcorn is related to an oronym, a pair of nearly homophonic phrases that differ based on juncture, that is, the relationship between two successive syllables. Refer to the classic pairs “I scream” / “ice cream” and “paradox” / “pair o’ ducks” for some prime examples. Jimi Hendrix’s “kiss the sky” mondegreen is another. How similar the homophones are depends on the dialect and enunciation of the speaker, just like the accent of the singer on “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” from my tape. If someone says “dictatorship” and you hear “potato chip,” you’ve experienced an oronym. The same goes if you think you hear someone mention “the lesser of two weevils” or say that something happened “right from the gecko” or tell you to “suture self.” I could go on forever… forever endeavor! As you may have guessed, if the oronym is intended to be humorous, it’s called a pun.

Similarly to a soramimi, when a foreign loanword is reproduced using the phonology of the borrowing language, the term is called a Hobson-Jobson. For example, the phrase flotsam and jetsam comes from the Anglicization of the Old Norman French words floteson and getteson, respectively referring to goods unintentionally and intentionally ejected from a sinking ship (the second word is a variation of jettison). Events of this nature have happened numerous times in history, especially upon confrontation of different ethnolinguistic cultures. The native Spaniards, when they heard the Arabic-speaking Moors refer to a large, edible thistle as al-harsuf, borrowed the term as alcachofa, which fit more readily with Spanish phonology. After filtering through a Northern Italian dialect, the word entered English as artichoke. When French explorers scouting the shores of Lake Michigan heard the native Powatomi tribe call a local area Shikaakwa (essentially meaning “striped-skunk place”), they interpreted the name as Chécagou, which later entered English as Chicago.

When someone replaces a word with another that is only vaguely similar and produces a nonsensical but humorous phrase, this is known as a malapropism. Baseball legend Yogi Berra was renowned for them. Among his more famous Yogi-isms: “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.” Also in the athletic world, heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson was often parodied for his failed attempts at speaking with an erudite vocabulary. A bit from a 1995 HBO special by comedian Dana Carvey lampooned Tyson’s tendency to do this: mimicking Tyson, Carvey lisped, “You gotta respect everybody’s indivisibles, ya know what I’m sayin’? Everybody’s got friends and entities, that’s no reason to put ‘em up on a pedicure!”

The term malapropism is named for Mrs. Malaprop, a woman who would consistently swap words based on their similarity. She was not a real person, but rather a character in the 1775 play The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Forty years later, Lord Byron would use the word “malaprop” to refer to an error in speech, thus coining the term, though in a simpler form. In the early days of the American film industry, Polish-born producer Samuel Goldwyn (the “G” in MGM) was so famous for making this mistake (partially due to his lack of total mastery of English), he was nicknamed Mr. Malaprop, which apparently irked him quite a bit. Not all of his so-called Goldwynisms were based on replaced words, but rather incongruous situations: he famously said, “I don’t think anybody should write his autobiography until after he’s dead.”  

Finally, one of my personal favorite types of speech error takes its name from a real historical personage. A well-respected Oxford don, Reverend William Archibald Spooner, was famous for frequently switching the initial sounds of two words. If you ever said that you’d been “lowing the mawn” and needed to “shake a tower,” then you committed a spoonerism. Rev. Spooner, who served at New College at Oxford from 1867 to 1924, was a small, quiet man who embodied the stereotype of the absent-minded professor. His nervous inattention engendered these verbal gaffes, which never failed to elicit stifled laughter from his students. Only a few spoonerisms have been definitively traced to his speech (“The weight of rages will press hard upon the employer”); most of the others were likely invented by his students as a running game to mock him, such as “The Lord is a shoving leopard.” One in particular is as well known as it is improbable: “Mardon me, padam, this pie is occupewed. Can I sew you to another sheet?”

Speech errors like mondegreens and spoonerisms typically qualify as a type of recreational linguistics, entertaining diversions that don’t quite make the cut for “real” linguistics. However, the truth is that they’re far more important than most people realize. They can actually tell us a lot about how language is processed in the brain. Although practically all of us around the world learn language naturally and effortlessly, a lot goes into producing every word we say. A convoluted network of neurons carries each electrical impulse from the formulation of a thought all the way to the vocal utterance which articulates that thought. Along this path a lot can go wrong, and such amusing errors betray the complex processes that underpin language production. I think it’s important to pay attention to these idiosyncratic mistakes, since we can learn so much from them. After all, like Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”