Fairytale of mondegreen

Thanks to the University of Brighton linguistics blog for my inspiration. After reading Liam Scholey’s post about how on earth we all manage to understand Fairytale of New York by the Pogues, I started thinking about Christmas song mondegreens.

A mondegreen is a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase, often a poem or song lyric. One of the best-known mondegreens can be found in Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix where many people hear ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ instead of the actual lyric which is ‘Excuse me while I kiss the sky‘.

The word mondegreen itself can be traced back to the American writer Sylvia Wright who in 1954 coined the term in her essay ‘The Death of Lady Mondegreen’. As a child, Wright heard a line from a poem as ‘They hae slain the Earl O’Moray, And Lady Mondegreen’. It wasn’t until later she realised that the actual line was: ‘They hae slain the Earl O’Moray, And laid him on the green’.

When we hear a mondegreen we sometimes mishear a word itself, but often we mishear where one word ends and the next one begins, as in the case of the Purple Haze lyric above. This is called misdivision. We reanalyse the sounds that we hear and try to match them with words that we know and ones that we think would fit into the sentence or story we’re hearing.

Christmas tree

Because of the way that Shane MacGowan, the lead singer of the Pogues, pronounces (or rather doesn’t pronounce) the words, Fairytale of New York does lend itself to a number of mondegreens. One of the most common being ‘God I’m the lucky one, came in at ten to one’ instead of the actual lyric: ‘Got on a lucky one, came in eighteen to one.’ There are quite a few more mondegreens from this song listed here.

One of my very favourite mondegreens ever comes from a dear friend of mine. After many many years of loving the song Golden Brown by The Stranglers, we were listening to it one time and my friend suddenly asked ‘What’s a mansheron?’ We all looked around puzzled and asked him for some clarification. He explained ‘The first lyrics of the song: “Golden Brown, texture like sun; Lays me down, with my mansherons”. What’s a mansheron?’ To which we all burst out laughing and told him what the actual lyrics are:

‘Golden Brown, texture like sun
Lays me down, with my mind she runs

I’m not even sure if it’s a true mondegreen as he made up an entirely new word, but I’ve never forgotten the term mondegreen since that day!

Have you got any mondegreens that you’ve heard? Oh and now you should definitely try listening (and singing) along to Fairytale of New York using the guide in the Brighton blog post. It’s a classic Christmas song. Enjoy.


Introducing me – my first attempt at blogging

“Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions; it is populated – overpopulated – with the intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit to one’s own intentions and accents, is a difficult and complicated process.” (Bakhtin 1981: 294)

Hello. My name is Gerry and I’m a Sociolinguist.

kids' shoes

In my current research, I work with Roma adolescents attending high school in Manchester. I am interested to see whether they acquire the local accent and whether they become sociolinguistically competent. Where they do, I want to know what social factors impact upon this.

Our sociolinguistic competence is the conscious and subconscious knowledge that enables us to use language that’s appropriate to the situation we’re communicating in. In other words we know to speak differently depending on what we’re saying, what situation we’re saying it in, and who we’re saying it to. (This is a very oversimplified explanation, but I hope to be able to go into more detail on this in another post)

I have completed just over 2 years of ethnographic fieldwork in a Manchester high school. Towards the end of my fieldwork, I did a number of recordings with some of the Roma students in school, and I’m currently finishing transcribing my recordings. At the same time, I’m completing a large spread sheet of items that the Roma teens say that may be of interest to me later. The more I go back and listen again to my recordings, the more fascinated I become by how these young people, most of whom have only lived in the UK for about 4 years, deftly manipulate their language to suit a range of styles and purposes (hence the quotation at the start). Of course, this is what I’m meant to be studying, and I can’t wait to get stuck into doing my analysis proper as soon as my transcriptions are completed.

The research I’m doing is for my PhD which I should complete some time next year. I’m a Sociolinguist especially interested in Phonetics and New Language Acquisition. This is my first attempt at blogging and I hope to update regularly (once a week is the plan), talking about what I’m doing in my research, general phd experiences, and other PdD/research/sociolinguistics related matters.

I’d love to receive any comments, suggestions, or thoughts on what I’ve written here. You can also find me on twitter: @gerryhowley

Thanks for reading!