The English Pedant – Lady Mondegreen and Jimi Hendrix


That is a word we don’t hear every day. It means a phrase that has been misheard and misinterpreted and it was first described in an article by the American writer Sylvia Wright in 1954, based on an ancient Scottish ballad, The Bonnie Earl of Moray, in which it is written:

They have slain the Earl of Moray
And laid him on the green

Like many such old ditties, this is a tale of intrigue and skulduggery among the nobility; in this case it is about the murder of the Earl of Moray by his rival the Earl of Huntly.

Lady Mondegreen enters the story as a mishearing, but fits in nicely and just makes us wonder who she was and what her relationship with the Earl was.

Unlike the mythical lady, the mondegreen has relatives. Malapropisms, for instance, are inadvertent uses of words which sound very similar, such as when someone gets specific, but tells you this “pacifically”.

In a gratifying justification of the right of 21st century people to be included in such erudite studies, the mishearing of lyrics in a song is called soramimi. Originally this Japanese word was applied to words wrongly translated from another language, which is easily done, with our imperfect language skills, grabbing at something we think we recognize.

But when it is English speakers getting the wrong end of the stick from another English speaker speaking (or singing) English, our only excuse is that pop and rock singers don’t always enunciate as we would like.

One example that perplexed me as a teenager finding my feet in the minefield of the adult world was when Jimi Hendrix, on his second single, Purple Haze, seemed to sing, “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy”. It was the sky he was kissing, in fact.

Many years later, the British soul singer Paul Young, lamented:

Every time you go away
You take a piece of meat with you

Or so it seemed, anyway. If he really had sung meat instead of me, we still wouldn’t have heard the t. Sometimes we have to use our intuition.

As a telecoms engineer once told me, we often can’t hear the s on the end of a word, but our knowledge of the language fills in the blanks for us.

That is why language teachers sometimes have to stress things in an unnatural way and then explain to students that you don’t, in fact, make a sound like a punctured tyre and you can’t really hear it but you have to imagine it’s there.

It’s not just English speakers, though. Spanish speakers have this habit of not pronouncing the end of a word. They will talk about the interne rather than the internet, because we know what they mean, so why go to all the trouble of putting the t on the end?

The recorded announcements on the Caracas Metro in Spanish-speaking Venezuela used to sound as if they were deliberately trying to fool me when, as I listened intently for where to get off, they would take all the consonants out of Parque Carabobo, so what you got was ar-eh arao-o. You get it in the end, but it doesn’t make life easy.

Back at the song lyrics, there are websites devoted to this stuff, but not all of them know where to draw the line. I personally doubt that anyone really thought Jefferson Starship sang “We built this city on sausage rolls” or that Bob Dylan informed us “The ants are my friends, they’re blowing in the wind.”

You could amuse a nine-year-old with that, but come on…

I am, though, perfectly willing to accept there were medical students who thought they heard “The girl with colitis goes by” (rather than kaleidoscope eyes) during Lucy in The Sky with Diamonds. It’s largely a matter of what we’re expecting to hear.

If you’ve got a good one, please leave a comment.

7 thoughts on “The English Pedant – Lady Mondegreen and Jimi Hendrix

  1. Ok – back home and got the wifi again. Checked this for my own curiosity and it’s the bit with “Night creatures calling, the dead start…” that sounds like “Mike Read just caught in a trap”. Doesn’t sound quite so similar now of course, but it was definitely a thing pointed out back in ’84 when Mr Read was the breakfast DJ. Sorry for littering your very erudite post with my silly music trivia – please delete!


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