Tom often tries to talk to me from the next room. “Bears fly fan sports?” he’ll call, sounding annoyed. “Bears fly fan sports?” I’ll repeat back loudly, sounding equally annoyed at the very dumb question. He’ll pop his head around the corner. “No, where’s my tan shorts?” he’ll ask, and I’ll mumble, “Well, why didn’t you ask that to begin with?” We are victims of a communication “mondegreen.”
The brand new 2008 edition of the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has just added a new word to describe this age-old phenomenon of mishearing. Evidently, mistaking words or phrases for other words or phrases is so common that Merriam Webster has finally acknowledged its existence with a dictionary entry, “mondegreen.”
According to an AP story by Stephanie Reitz, the word “mondegreen” has its roots in an old Scottish ballad in which the lyric ‘laid him on the green’ has been confused and misheard over time as ‘Lady Mondegreen.’
When I was a freshman in college, I went home for the weekend with my roommate, who lived in Glenwood, Minnesota. We got together with some of her old high school friends at somebody’s house where the radio was playing a 1960s Dave Clark Five song called “Catch Us If You Can.” The lyrics go, “Here we come again, mmmm/Catch us if you can, mmmm, etc.” One of her high school friends sang enthusiastically along with the radio, “Here we come again, mmmm/Ketchup in a can, mmmm.” I thought she was the dumbest person I had ever met in my life. Little did I know that she was just a mondegreen victim.
On cold or rainy days, when I walk on the treadmill and watch a DVD, I have gotten into the habit of using English subtitles so I can understand what the characters are saying. Otherwise, I will watch an entire movie and mistake a murder mystery for a tragic love story. (“Professor Plum did it in the conservatory with a candlestick,” becomes “Profess her love and plummet off the seven-story cliff.”)
However, I am discovering a very important fact as I am writing this entry. Every single time I write “mondegreen,” it is underlined with a red wavy line. Evidently, even though Merriam Webster recognizes mondegreen as a word, Microsoft hasn’t gotten the memo yet.