The Writing is Off the Wall

I have discovered the “closed caption” command now that I am losing my hearing and probably my mind. This is especially necessary for the British mystery shows I love to watch on my computer but cannot understand. You know, the whole two nations separated by a common language thing. However, I suspect most of the translating from sound to text is done by other computers, because some of what I’m reading on the screen is hilariously wrong.

Recently I watched Ten Percent, not a mystery but a fast-paced, glossy show about entertainment agents in London. It features lots of great guest stars and twisty plots, but on one episode there was discussion of going to Hampstead Heath, a famous park on the outskirts of the city. Unfortunately, the closed caption read “Hamster Teeth.” Sure, why not?

It got me thinking about misheard words or phrases or lyrics that make sense, but are oh so wrong. There’s even a word for this, mondegreen, coined by Sylvia Wright, who as a little girl misunderstood this poem.

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

There was no Lady Mondegreen, dead or alive. The actual words are “and laid him on the green.”

Song lyrics are habitually imagined to be something other than they are. Two fun examples:

Hold me closer, Tony Danza (tiny dancer)

Give me the Beach Boys and free my soul (Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul)

A close relative of the mondegreen is the Malaprop (from the play The Rivals) or Dogberry (from Much Ado About Nothing). Named for the verbally discombobulated characters in these plays, they are incorrect words substituted for words that sound similar. Dance a flamingo for dance a flamenco, ravaged for ravished, lathed for laved (the latter two a common mistake in some romances I’ve read, which have to be seriously uncomfortable and bloody).

When I was a little girl, I heard the term guerilla warfare and pictured a bunch of gorillas in the Cuban jungle that had somehow been trained to fight by Fidel Castro. I was confused but impressed.  A sign in the deli around the corner from my house said “No beer sold to minors,” and I wondered where the mines (Gold? Silver? Coal?) were on suburban Long Island and why the poor thirsty miners were being discriminated against. Both my auditory comprehension and spelling were faulty at that tender age.

I find I have to read directions—I cannot listen to or watch someone and understand what I’m supposed to do. But if I have that written list of steps in front of me, there’s a chance I can complete the task without too many screws left over. It’s rather late in life to discover my learning style, but better late than never. And that is why closed captions are my new best friends, even if they make me laugh on occasion.

Do you have a favorite word mix-up? Please share!

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21 Responses to The Writing is Off the Wall

  1. John Clark says:

    Ah, the scramble of words. I find there are certain words select people mispronounce or misspell eternally. I tend to catch certain ones when reading books. I feel for the people who are driving and hit the breaks…That must really hurt. Then there’s the ‘Star Trek’ effect where people are phazed or unphazed by situations that barely faze me. I’ve been guilty of mispronouncing certain words like yacht and Maori, plus one I’m never sharing. Now I’m off to savor my Mongol hoard.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Well, when I was in high school, the speculation about the lyrics of “Louie, Louie” were pretty lurid.

  3. To this day I can not listen to “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival without hearing “There’s a bathroom on the right.”

  4. Monica says:

    My favorite is my brother learning the Hail Mary (the prayer, not the football pass). It will forever be ‘Hail Mary, full of grapes…’

  5. Julianne Spreng says:

    Of course, “Round John virgin, mother, and child” always confused the heck out of me!

  6. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    Now I’m doomed to sing it that way!

  7. Norway says:

    “Doughnuts make your brown eyes blue.” Kate Clinton

  8. Alice says:

    My young son sang “Jolly Good Fellow” as “for he’s a Johnny gaterro” – – huh?

  9. Anonymous says:

    Love the gorillas! We must be the same generation because I remember the same impression.

    My fav – from the Patty Duke theme song – “A hop will make her lose control.” I thought they were talking about a dance – turns out the lyric is “a hot dog makes her lose control.” Didn’t know it until the lyrics were printed in her obit.

  10. susanvaughan says:

    Some of my favorites have already been cited above. But I heard an hilarious mispronunciation on the radio the other day. “The senator was the design-ated speaker.” Maybe for his or her perfect articulation? Or designer attire?

  11. Jane says:

    This reminds of when we were in a restaurant in Spain, and the English translation of the menu item “Huevos a la Flamenco” was Eggs a la Flamingo!”

  12. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    I am picturing a mess of pink eggs!

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