Has this happened to you?
How often do we ask someone to repeat something we didn’t quite catch? Then sometimes we don’t ask and we get hold of the wrong end of the stick. It must have happened to everyone at some point. An extreme example is when someone is hard of hearing. A contributor to an online forum mentioned her somewhat deaf father’s hilarious mishearings: asked for a passage from scripture he understood a boa constrictor.
One form of language that is easy to mishear or misinterpret is songs, hymns, and anthems. The often-quoted classic example is Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky being understood as ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy. Wikipedia suggests that Jimi knew about this mishearing and played up to it.
Another example, possibly mythical, is Gladly, the cross-eyed bear for Gladly my cross I’ll bear from a late nineteenth-century hymn.
Keep Thou my all, O Lord, hide my life in Thine;
O let Thy sacred light over my pathway shine;
Kept by Thy tender care, gladly the cross I’ll bear;
Hear Thou and grant my prayer, hide my life in Thine.
From Keep Thou My Way, Fanny Crosby, 1894.
Kids often do it
We always want to make sense of what we hear. So if the sounds that reach our ears don’t make sense to our brains, we reinterpret them or fill in the gaps with words we do know. Adults don’t have to do that too often, because they know a lot. Children know less about the world, and fewer words. That’s why they can interpret words new to them in strange ways.
What did you learn at school today?
I know a song about rabbits!
Oh? Can you sing it…?
Oh yes! it goes – Speed, bunny boat, like a bird on the wing…!
A special name for slips of the ear
Slips of the ear of this kind are known as mondegreens. The American writer Sylvia Wright coined the word in 1954, and she explained why:
“When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember: ‘Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, Oh, where hae ye been? They hae slain the Earl Amurray, And Lady Mondegreen'”. But the exact words of the ballad are (in the closest I can find to the original Scots):
YE highlands, and ye lawlands, Oh! quhair hae ye been? They hae slaine the Earl of Murray, And hae laid him on the green.
Her mishearing of “laid him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen” illustrates the mistaken analysis of word boundaries that is typical of mondegreens. Technically, it is known as metanalysis. Historically, metanalysis has produced an adder from a nadder and a newt from an ewt. Ultimately, it gave us an orange from the Arabic nāranj.
Perhaps Lady Mondegreen looked as sad as this when she lost her Earl of Murray.