Et Cetera, Et Cetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher

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Of Mondegreens and Eggcorns: Language Keeps Talking About Itself

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When the writer Sylvia Wright was a child, her mother would read to her from Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, including this stanza:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
Writing in 1954 for Harper’s Magazine, the grown-up Wright recalled tears coming to her eyes over the tragic image of the Earl Amurray and Lady Mondegreen clasping hands as they perished together. Though the poem described the Earl at great length, it didn’t mention Lady Mondegreen before or after that moment. But that fact didn’t strike Wright as odd at the time. She knew all she needed to know about Lady Mondegreen’s fatal loyalty to the dashing Earl from one simple line.

It was only later in life that Wright learned what was already clear to anyone who had read the poem in print rather than heard it recited aloud: There is no Lady Mondegreen. The line that begat both her existence and her demise actually reads “And laid him on the green.” In honor of her misinterpretation, Wright coined the term mondegreen for instances of mishearing a word or phrase in a way that gives it a new, unintended meaning.

Language is laced with such legends about itself. If someone falls victim to a mondegreen, is corrected, but stubbornly insists on continuing with the error, we call that a mumpsimus. The term stems from a Catholic priest who flubbed the Latin term sumpsimus during mass and then continued saying mumpsimus thereafter. This story was first relayed by the theologian Erasmus in a letter dated 1516. And here we are 500 years later, with mumpsimus appearing on a Huffington Post listicle of “10 Useful Words for Work.” (The blended word listicle is a portmanteau, a term coined by none other than Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass.) The name of the recalcitrant priest is long since forgotten, but the relic of language he inspired lives on.

If you search for information about mondegreens, you may fall down a linguistic rabbit hole, following mondegreento homophonyto heteronym. The churning sea of language raises its watery head to look around and then dives back into itself, splashing out words like litotes, genericide, and yes, metaphor. I collect these terms like Easter eggs, thrilled to have names for the ways we outfit our messages with color, rhythm, and nuance.

There are those of us who worship language and what it can do, arriving at the altar at a young age. As we learn, we stack up vocabulary into semantic pyramids — to forget is an infinitive is a verb; forgotten is a past participle is an adjective (sometimes) is a modifier (usually). We are the ones who read ahead in our English textbooks and who sign up for high school Spanish and French classes to see if other people in other corners of the world wield language differently from our own clumsy grips. We become readers to consume language and writers to spread it and editors to protect it.

Those early dissections, slicing language into sentences and paragraphs and extracting subjects and predicates, are our first lessons in the vocabulary of language’s favorite subject: itself. Lewis Thomas writes in Et Cetera, Et Cetera, his collection of meandering etymological essays, “The language keeps talking about itself, cannot seem to have enough of itself. At a guess, I’d say there are more roots for the various ways of using language than for all other human activities together, some of them hidden away inside longer words that seem to be designed for other purposes, most of them standing baldly out in full view.” ­

Mondegreens are particularly prevalent in song lyrics. (Consider all the people who thought Taylor Swift was singing about lonely Starbucks lovers.) When a mondegreen involves song lyrics from another language, it’s called soramimi. When a mondegreen results in a nonsensical phrase, it’s called a malapropism. But if the ersatz word or phrase makes some sort of twisted sense, such as “old-timer’s disease” in place of “Alzheimer’s disease,” it’s an eggcorn (itself an eggcorn for acorn).

Language cares about these subtle distinctions. It digests the complicated things we try to do with it and feeds us back distilled linguistic pearls, from anacoluthon to zeugma. It looks in the mirror and describes its patterns (hypallage, paligogy); it opens its mouth and listens to how it sounds (fricative, glottal). It teases apart its letters only to coax them back together more closely (blend words) or in a different order (metathesis), lop some letters off (haplology), or add new ones (paragoge). It tracks the movement of its words across questions and responses (pied-piping, wh-movement).

For every linguistic guideline, there’s a word coined to denote how to skirt that guideline for rhetorical effect. “I came, saw, and conquered” just doesn’t have the same decisive intonement without the phrase-beginning repetition of anaphora, nor would we still be singing Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” had he not employed the phrase-ending repetition of epistrophe.

Language flexes and adapts. It knows it will be both mangled and elevated, depending on who wields it — quite often by the same person. The damage of careless or misleading words can be immensely far-reaching, as history has borne again and again. At its worse, language can be used to confuse facts and cloud intention, sowing fear, hostility, and oppression. But at its best, it’s the ultimate form of synecdoche, when a term for part of something refers to the thing in its entirety. Language lets us use things as small as phonemes to represent our entire world.

Image Credit: Flickr/Thomas Quine.

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