By Mark Heaney
When it comes to the English language, we all make mistakes. It can be good fun though.
Ever been listening to a song you’ve heard a million times or more, and the penny will finally drop, they’re not saying “I’ll love you til the end” but rather “I hate you and your friends”? A slight exaggeration perhaps, but I have often run into difficulties when it comes to deciphering song lyrics. Liam Gallagher’s sneering vocals or the inebriated snarl of The Pogues’ Shane McGowan have often had me running for the CD sleeve or for Whataretheyonabout.com for the lyrics to find out, well, what they are on about.
Seemingly, I am not alone. People have historically misheard all types of highly improbable declarations: Creedence Clearwater Revival speaking of a bathroom on the right (“There’s a bad moon on the rise”); The Stone Roses’ Ian Brown wanting to be a dog, or a door (“I wanna be adored”); Jimi Hendrix politely asking to be excused while he kisses some guy (“Excuse me while I kiss the sky”), and Whitney Houston declaring herself to be Henry Walnut (“I’m every woman”). Now I can’t see why Whitney Houston would have wanted to let people know that she was in fact Henry Walnut, whoever he may be, but my friend did, and despite my protestations, refused to hear anything to the contrary.
Such mishearings and misinterpretations of lines in a poem or lyrics in a song were coined mondegreens by American writer Sylvia Wright in 1954. As a young girl, she had misheard a line from a 17th-century ballad, hearing “They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray, And Lady Mondegreen” instead of the actual last line “And laid him on the green.” Likewise, other misinterpretations have their own coinages.
It always makes me laugh to hear my mum refer to her recent forgetfulness as ‘Oultimers disease’, the Irish variant of “Oldtimers disease” and of course the misheard version of the very real illness, Alzheimer’s disease. What I didn’t know until recently was that this was called an eggcorn, the substitution of a word or phrase for another that sounds similar but where the substitution has some logic behind it. The term “eggcorn” itself came from one woman’s misunderstanding of “acorn” (granted, it does look a bit eggy) and the term has come to be used for all such substitutions, such as “ex-patriot” (instead of “expatriate”) and “shoe-in” (as opposed to the correct “shoo-in”).
Conversely, malapropisms are substitutions that come from a mishearing but where the resultant phrase does not make any sense – although it will generally make people laugh. Think Del Boy of Only Fools and Horses declaring it was “good to be back on the old terracotta” and not “terra firma” and you get an idea of the comedy potential.
Meanwhile, Folk etymology refers to popularly held assumptions and beliefs about the origin of a word or phrase, assumptions that are based on common sense but which often prove to be false and enter into the lexicon in any case. Examples include the use of “chaise lounge” (a chair for your living room) which comes from the original “chaise longue” meaning “long chair”, and “butt-naked”, which again makes sense but which actually comes from “buck-naked” as in the buck of the deer and later Indian brave varieties.
Lastly, and my own personal favourite, spoonerisms are the mixing up of the consonants and/ or vowels in words and named after an English reverend who suffered from this comic affliction. Perhaps the most famous example is the ingenious “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy”. Whether accidental tips of the slongue – sorry, slips of the tongue – or intentional plays on words, they are ripe comedy fodder.
Who’d have thought that making mistakes could have such comedy potential? A bit like seeing somebody fall over, only doing so with words.