Safire ‘On Language’ — fun with mondegreens
today at 7:30 am
In William Safire’s delightful book “On Language” (New York, 1980, Times Books), he has a funny entry about a category I loved laughing about before I knew its technical name, mondegreens.
Actually, hearing sounds and thinking they sound for the wrong words has many names — Safire prefers mondegreen to the more technical “homophone,” “unwitting paronomasia,” and “agnominatio,” writing that those terms “sound like fancified dirty words to me.”
Mondegreen, according to Safire, was coined in a 1954 story in Harper’s Bazaar magazine, “The Death of Lady Mondegreen,” by Sylvia Wright. She “recalled a Scottish ballad, ‘The Bonny Earl of Murray,’ from Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry,’ which sounded to her like this:
‘Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray
And Lady Mondegreen.'”
Safire says that Wright didn’t want the Earl to die alone, so she imagined this lady dying with him — even though she knew they laid him on the green.
The rest of the column is full of wondering about what “in a future century” (and remember, he was writing in 1980) might happen to some of the easier metanalyses, or misdivisions of words. Just as an “ekename” of long ago is a nickname now, Safire wonders, would an exorbitant charge get called “‘a nominal egg.’ perhaps committed by a ‘next-store neighbor’?”
I could go on until the dawnzer gives its lee light, as Beverly Clearly so memorably had her children’s book character Ramona learn in school. But, as Safire counsels, a nuff is a nuff.
That leads me to French — the “goose eggs” on scoreboard and “love” in tennis both relate to mis-hearing the French word for an egg, l’oeuf. Of course, that looks like a zero… but that means nothing. Signing off now.
Margaret Serious has a page on Facebook.