The Merry Mondegreen

Did I hear that right?

Years ago, I read a book where the author repeatedly used the expression “beckoned call”—as in, “The clerk responded readily to his boss’s every beckoned call at the office.” Beckoned call? That was like fingernails on the chalkboard to my fussy grammar-ears. It should have been beck and call. And then I decided to look it up in one of my go-to language reference books: Garner’s Modern American Usage. Not only did Garner have an entry on this quirky expression, but he also even supplied a label for slightly “off” words and expressions that result from mishearing the actual word or expression: “mondegreens.”

According to Garner, a mondegreen is “a misheard lyric, saying, catchphrase, or slogan.” Scottish writer Sylvia Wright introduced mondegreen to the English-speaking world in 1954 in a magazine article where she recounted how she, as a child, misunderstood a line in a popular ballad. The line was “laid him on the green,” but to her young ears it was “Lady Mondegreen.”

Children are good at mishearing words and song lyrics and producing clever alternatives that fit with their developing language database. Maybe you’ve heard of the little guy who sang “round John Virgin” instead of “round yon Virgin” in “Away in a Manger.” Or the Star-Spangled Banner’s “Jose can you see, by the donzerly light?” Some tykes think the letter in the alphabet between k and p is “ellemeno.”

It took a while for my wife and me to figure out that Fleetwood Mac’s song “Take a Chance on Me” featured the phrase “Honey, I’m still free,” not “ollie oxen free.” (True confession.)

But some mondegreens occur in adulthood, and they are often harder to shake—and more embarrassing. We say, “Little Johnny’s the spitting image of his father,” which is actually a corruption of the original spit and image (or spit ’n’ image), from a time when spit commonly meant “perfect likeness” (you can look it up).[1]

We hear “mute point” (which should be moot point) and “for all intensive purposes” (make that “for all intents and purposes”). I heard a local television news reporter recently explain how the storm “wrecked havoc.” While an understandable word choice, it’s a mondegreen. The expression is wreaked havoc. Close, but no cigar.

The satisfying thing to me, the fellow with the sometimes fussy-grammar ears, is that I now have a label for these slightly “off” words, expressions, and sayings. Mondegreens.


[1] Hawking up a loogie has nothing to do with how Johnny resembles his father.

This essay is taken from my book Whatever Happened to English?

Author: Dean Christensen

Educator, copyeditor, writer, baseball bug, word lover, book hound, guitar picker, classical music aficionado, classic rock 'n' roll and movie buff, sinner, saint, former this, used-to-be that, and future who-knows-what. Every day is an adventure in learning how to make the world a better place--grammatically, anyway.

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