You heard it wrong!

Last Updated 24 September 2016, 18:40 IST

I simply love the ‘word of the day’ that Merriam-Webster sends to my inbox. The word is defined, few examples of its usage are given, and there comes a note on its etymology. Some of the words have interesting origins.

Many words are unknown to me,  and it’s with some regret that I concede to you, dear reader, that I forget most of them as soon as I exit Gmail. However, one word that has stuck with me is mondegreen. The word is defined as: ‘a word or phrase that results from mishearing of something said or sung’.

The origin of the word is attributed to writer Sylvia Wright, who, as a child, heard a Scottish ballad that ran: ‘They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray, And laid him on the green’. Little Sylvia’s mind decided to pair the said Earl with ‘Lady Mondegreen’ instead, and this union resulted in the birth of a useful and colourful word.

All of us have come across mondegreens and employed several of them unwittingly. When my daughter entered kindergarten years ago, her best friend was Gayatri. Every afternoon, I heard about Gayatri’s exploits and I was naturally curious to meet that child. At the next parent-teacher meeting, imagine my surprise when the teacher said that there was no Gayatri in her class. Was my poor child imagining friends? The mystery was solved when the little one playing with my daughter was called out by her mother. It was ‘Marjory’ that had become ‘Gayatri’ in a four-year-old’s mind.

But mondegreens are by no means the preserve of kindergarteners. My father (in his 70s) was fond of the Madhuri Dixit song ‘Akhiya Milaoon Kabhi Akhiya Churaoon’, and would always sing, “Bina paya LKG” instead of “Bina payal ke hi” much to our amusement. Mondegreens, like hearing loss, must run in my family. For, the other day I heard my children giggling as I sang along with the radio... “Kiss mere hoton ko, kiss mere hoton ko,” I belted out, and they said, “Why don’t you pay attention, woman? It’s kheech meri photo ko.”

I attribute my mondegreens to my romantic nature, but a reputed auditory scientist attributed his secretary’s mondegreens to her jaundiced worldview! Dr Charles Berlin reviewed a paper and dictated to his secretary, “This work is meticulously done,” and she typed, ‘This work is ridiculously dumb.’

He said that “the child had poor phrasing” and she keyed in, ‘The poor child was freezing’. ‘The calibrations are in RMS (Root Mean Square)’ was typed as ‘the calibrations are in a mess’. Imagine the mess Dr Berlin would have found himself in had he not rechecked his secretary’s typing. Did Dr Berlin find his secretary exasperating? On the contrary, being interested in the scientific aspects of speech perception, he found the phenomenon interesting and attributed it to poor fidelity systems, poor perception, and different vocabulary. Phew!

Recently, when a young nephew sang, “I like to vomit, vomit,” we rushed him to the bathroom despite knowing that it was a mondegreen of the popular song from the film Madagascar. We just didn’t want to take chances. Did you hear it as shake dances?

(Published 24 September 2016, 16:27 IST)

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