This piece first appeared in the National Post. It is reprinted here with kind permission.
Sometimes life delivers something we always longed for but didn’t even know it. It doesn’t happen (as best I can tell) nearly often enough, and usually the matter in question is minor, but I can report that this week I learned what a mondegreen is, and I’m a happier man for it.
Can there be someone reading this who has not had the experience of mishearing the lyrics of a song – often for years, warbling the mangled version on various highways and in diverse showers – only to subsequently discover their mistake, with amusement or chagrin, depending on their personality type? Join me in celebrating. There is a word for it.
The history is appealing. One of the better known of the old Scottish ballads, ‘The Bonny Earl of Murray’ contains the following refrain: “They have slain the Earl of Murray/And laid him on the green.” It seems that Sylvia Wright, the columnist, spent a substantial part of her childhood hearing this as, “They have slain the Earl of Murray/And the Lady Mondegreen.” One can only sympathize, shake one’s head, ponder the fate of that aristocratic lady murdered far too young. And then applaud Ms Wright’s turning her shock on discovering the truth to great honour by coining the word, offering an invaluable service to all of us. We need people like this, and most certainly words like this. The Germans may have schadenfreude, the French may suavely glory in esprit d’escalier, but English has mondegreens.
And so many examples of them. Those who have spent innumerable hours, nay years, researching the matter (including Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle) appear collectively confident that the most commonly invoked mondegreen is the heartfelt salute to ‘Gladly, the cross-eyed bear.’ Lingering in the realm of the spiritual, there looms the large figure of ‘Round John Virgin,’ most often encountered at Christmas time. A research site on the web which calls itself ‘Mondegreens Ripped My Flesh’ reports (touchingly) that Simon and Garfunkel were thought to have sung, ‘Partially saved was Mary and Tom,’ and of course a remarkable number of people heard the late Jimi Hendrix sing, ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy.’ Hendrix always thought he wrote, ‘while I kiss the sky’ but any good poststructuralist will affirm that the author’s intention is of only marginal significance in these (and other) matters. We know what we know, we heard what we heard. Who can forget the Spanish ballad, ‘One Ton Tomato’, an early warning about genetically altered food, or the country-and-western beauty tip, “Doughnuts Make Your Brown Eyes Blue”?
In the spirit of sharing and confessional induced by these revelations and Ms Wright’s courageous example, I am now prepared to stand up and offer my own Testimony. In a different, less correct age, not so long ago, I was frequently enlisted to sing with classmates that resonant paean to British triumph over the French in Canada, ‘The Maple Leaf Forever.’ The first stanza, as all those of a certain age will recall, ends with the words, ‘The thistle, shamrock, rose entwined,/The Maple Leaf forever.’
Well into my second decade of wandering amidst the flowers and mondegreens of this wide world, I fear that I enthusiastically sang out, proud among my peers, ‘The Thistle Shamrock rose and cried: ‘The maple leaf forever!’ The inner vision of that faithful Thistle Shamrock loyally leaping up to salute its gallant leader among the plants and leaves is with me still.
But now I have a name for it. Along with a new, poignant image of a Scottish lady slain before her time. I grieve for the Lady Mondegreen, but life is a little richer this week.
© Guy Gavriel Kay