Have you ever learned a word incorrectly because you misheard it? You won’t know at the time, of course. Such a realization comes afterward when you bump up against others using the word, and your lexical paradigm doesn’t match your interlocutor’s.
You see, our brains are meaning-making machines and will try to make meaning make sense even when it does not, and will fill in words it thinks it hears. The school game telephone (also known as Chinese whispers) exploits this property linguistically known as a mondegreen, which got its name through Sylvia Wright’s famous mishearing of the poetic line “layd him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen.”
Mondegreen is a mondegreen!
Well, I recently had a charming mondegreen experience with a gentleman on the internet. It is apparent that he had been using the word “wheel barrel” in lieu of wheelbarrow for some time and was corrected. Seemingly with the same refusal of Sylvia Wright to accept the real term (she preferred her misheard version of the poem as it added tragic romance), he turned to Facebook for solidarity.
Through our exchange, I informed him that he had experienced a mondegreen, and as the Facebook group I was in was about gardening, I asserted that he must have a “mondegreen thumb.”
I am proud of that pun. (I suppose I have the linguistical humor of a man as both in Japanese puns are known as 親父 ギャグ[old man jokes] and in English “dad jokes.” Pulling off lexical ambiguity is just so snicker worthy!)
Mistaking wheel barrel for wheelbarrow is a perfect example of a mondegreen as it is a near homophone and a barrel on wheels is a logical description of the item. The mind would accept this easily. Yet, in truth, it is a wheelbarrow, and if one digs a little etymologically, it too makes sense. Barrow comes from the Proto-Indo-European word “bher” which means “to carry.” It is also the root of the term to “bear” children.
Mondegreens are found in all languages and make for useful language learning tools, i.e. mnemonics. For example, when learning English, Japanese students are taught to remember “my name is….” as マヨネーズ（mayonnaise.) Likewise, English speakers learning Japanese are taught to remember “Don’t mention it/you’re welcome” as “Don’t touch my mustache.” (どいとしまして。）
Growing up, my mother would summon us to the table for diner with a “EAT YOUR DUCKY MOSS!” for いただきます. (A phrase of gratitude said before eating. The approximate translation being: I am grateful for what I am about to receive.)
What is a misheard word that you have experienced? How did you figure out it was mondegreen? What are mondegreens that have helped you learn something?
“Mondegreen.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 31 May 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mondegreen.
“Barrow (N.1).” Index, http://www.etymonline.com/word/barrow.