Category Archives: Mondegreen

“They are long last friends.”

Dylan Thomas enjoyed revisiting clichéed expressions, refreshing them to offer his reader new insights, experiences, lines of thought. Phrases such as “a dog among the fairies, The atlas-eater with a jaw for news, Bit out the mandrake with tomorrow’s scream” (“Altarwise by Owl light”) and “Dead men naked they shall be one  With the man in the wind and the west moon” (“And Death Shall Have No Dominion”) wake us up with a tug on the bell of familiarity. 

Sometimes a student error has the same effect. This is one such error.

The reader of student papers (as distinct from the reader of a Dylan Thomas poem) must of course first ask: “Is this just a typo?” We can be almost certain here that my writer was going for “long-lost friends,” and possibly all she did was hit “a” instead of “o” and omit the hyphen, a little mark students are generally not comfortable with anyway. The reader silently corrects and moves on. No problem. We knew what she meant.

Just as likely, though, is that my student has not heard the expression “long-lost friend” very often; she is, after all, only 18 or 19. How long can friends be lost for if one’s entire life is two decades or less? And if she hasn’t heard the expression very often, she may not have heard it correctly. I’ve looked at a lot of other errors that seem to have resulted from reaching into one’s own lexicon to interpret an unfamiliar term, and this may be one of those errors. She may have misunderstood what she heard.

If so, then what intention did she add to the phrase? We get to play with punctuation here, all the “little marks” that group words into concepts.

Did she mean “long, last friends”? That is, was she thinking of enduring relationships with people, possibly tall people, who were likely to be among the mourners at her gravesite? For some reason this strikes me as a kind of Dylan-Thomas-y thing to write.

Or are we seeing “long-last friends”—those sturdy ones who can be relied on through thick and thin, kind of like Levi’s jeans or Wearever cookware or Firestone tires—?

I like the latter. Rather than the poignancy of friends separated by space and time, meeting again in a joyous embrace, two bereft halves coalescing finally into a stable and satisfying whole, this phrase offers us the practical, workaday comfort of friends who are, as so many of my students like to say, “THERE for each other.”

I therefore offer you the companion phrase as something you might want to add to your lexicon. “At my high school reunion I enjoyed the thrill of seeing again some long-lost friends” can be joined by “When I got home I told Jane, my long-last friend, all about it.”

Remember to keep that hyphen in there, though, or you’ll have to be writing from a sickbed or coffin.

Medieval statues of Mourners—or Long, Last Friends. No reunions here. This image from an article on the exhibit “Mourners” at the Musée des Beaux Arts de Dijon.

“It is an indisputable fact that…”

First, as a back-to-blog special, I have to share this post (AND COMMENTS) from Humans of New York—a real Mondegreens festival!

And now, for something like what we’ve been doing for the past two years.

My first-year students wrote their first essays on a subject I thought they’d bring a lot of personal experience to: electronic communications. Instead, most of them tried to give me vast, sweeping surveys of the history and variety of electronic-communications media.

When a student starts off with the assured observation that something is an “indisputable fact” (as opposed, presumably, to those disputable facts*), the reader braces for something impressive, but usually impressive in a way not intended by the student. This student did not disappoint:

“It is an indisputable fact that technology has an extensive presence in technology and continues to evolve.”

I suppose this would be a lot like saying that I have an extensive presence in myself and continue to evolve. Well, perhaps that is an indisputable fact, but it strikes me as more of a sentence that got lost somewhere. Most likely my student began his sentence with the intention of saying that technology has an extensive presence in our culture and that presence continues to evolve. Perhaps that’s what he did write at some point, but then revised a couple of times and in the process lost some words. If so, didn’t he think about reading the final version?

And does technology itself evolve? I’ve always thought of evolution as a self-driven process, not the result of thousands of technicians/creators in labs experimenting with new ideas. Aren’t Creationists dead-set against the theory of evolution?

I ask students to begin their essays with a claim that they believe most readers would agree with, then move into a more specific claim that requires demonstration and defense. My student began his essay by daring his readers to disagree (“It is an indisputable fact”) and then making a claim that in its current form is either self-evident or ridiculous, depending on the degree to which it is analyzed.

Be careful what you ask for!


* such as the sun revolving around the earth, etc. But I don’t think my student had such things in mind; certainly his essay didn’t, as we say, “go there.”

“He has a pension for fantasy.”

A simple hearing error.

How often anymore does the typical student encounter the word penchant? Still, somebody she heard had encountered it…or that person had heard it from someone who had encountered it…all the way down into the Quaker Oatmeal box, at some point in which sequence there was a person who actually knew the word was penchant. Whoever heard that person, though, didn’t know the word, and in came “pension.”

How strange it is that college undergraduates would be more likely to know the word “pension” than “penchant.” Are they thinking about retirement before they even enter the ranks of the employed? It’s possible to receive a pension without retiring, as Webster’s first and second variants on definition #1 show: “a fixed sum paid regularly to a person; a gratuity granted (as by a government) as a favor or reward.” But there’s our common understanding, in definition 1c: “a sum paid under given conditions to a person following his retirement from service or to his surviving dependents”—the latter should the employee die in harness, presumably.

[Just to be thorough: Webster’s definition #2 is “hotel or boardinghouse in Europe.” That one derives from the French pension, or boardinghouse, pronounced more like pon(g)-syON(g). But that word has nothing to do with what my student was trying to write.]

Back to definition #1. There’s something staid and settled about “pension.” PEN-shn. Even though a young person could receive a pension, the word would age him, I think.

“Penchant,” on the other hand, has that French je ne sais quoi about it. In real French it’s a form of the verb pencher, to lean, says Webster; in English it means “a strong leaning,” a liking. The definition isn’t terribly interesting, but the word itself…yes, there’s something. Even though the pronunciation isn’t anything special—PEN-chnt—the spelling is so nice. And in affected moments one can always give it a bigger French spin: “Yes, I do have a pon(g)-SHAN(G) for being pretentious!”

Can whoever committed the first mishearing of the word be blamed for confusing PEN-shn and PEN-chnt? Well, my high school French teacher would never have put up with sloppy hearing: his dictées were grueling, and corrected with precision. He would have expected my student (or whoever it was who got “penchant” wrong) to have listened more discerningly, no less in English than in French.

If we don’t blame the hearer, perhaps we should blame the speaker. His fault was plainly speaking good ol’ English. If he had but been a little more pretentious, he might have said the word so that my student heard something closer to the intended term—or, of course, accused the speaker of using “hard words.”

But all of this ignores the true delight of the error. The idea behind this blog has been not only to try to understand the intellectual activity behind the student’s mistake, but also to show the kinds of distracting notions that interpose themselves between the writer’s intention and the reader’s comprehension. In this economic climate, at least for a writing instructor laboring in the hardscrabble vineyards of part-timer-dom, my student’s sentence achieves a poignancy, a poetry, that transports one into a world of revealing truths.

Yes, I have a fantasy pension. Or, receiving a pension from my current employers when I dodder off into the sunset is a fantasy. Or, my only pension after all these years is my finely honed gift for fantasy. I have fantasy for a pension.

Should I punish this student for taking me down this distracting lane, or reward him for giving me a new way of summarizing my life?

“This poem was written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the ladder part of his career.”

Of course I knew what she meant: she meant “the latter part of his career,” when in fact Chaucer did write The Canterbury Tales, or as much as he managed to finish before his death. Pretty clearly, she knows the meaning of “latter”; she just doesn’t know it’s a word.

This kind of problem is not limited to student writers. All of us mis-hear words and phrases: when the mis-hearing makes a new kind of sense we can call it a mondegreen, if we’re so inclined.

Sometimes we’re mis-hearing words we actually know, but confuse because of sound. I certainly know the words “bad,” “moon,” and “rise,” but when Creedence Clearwater Revival sang it, I (and evidently a lot of other people, if Google is to be believed) heard “There’s a bathroom on the right” instead of “There’s a bad moon on the rise.” For years I wondered why someone would put directions to a lavatory into a popular song….

Sometimes the confusion arises because we hear a word that is not familiar, but it sounds sufficiently like one we know that we assume it’s the one intended: “We know he’s Jewish because his grandson had a brisk,” for example. And we blithely go on to use the word we think we heard. As long as we’re just speaking, we might get away with it; but when we have to commit it to paper, we reveal our confusion to others, if not to ourselves.

And that’s all that happened here.

For me, of course, the sentence suggests Chaucer climbing to the heights of literary celebrity or achievement. But such a “ladder” part of his career would have predated The Canterbury Tales. The Book of the Duchess was probably the first real rung, an elegy commissioned by John of Gaunt for his dead wife. And up he went, with Parlement of Foules, The Legend of Good Women, and Troilus and Criseyde, among other works. The ladder part. Top rung: The Canterbury Tales. If he had lived longer, he would have needed a taller ladder.

Chaucer prepares to climb his career ladder.
Chaucer image: the Ellesmere manuscript.

“The fans are die-hearted for their team.”

So again we encounter confusion between “heart” and “hard.” What do these students do with the expression “hard-hearted,” I wonder?

I suppose when a team does really, really badly, or when a sure win suddenly turns to a last-second loss, the fans’ hearts die a bit. As they leave the stadium, do they feel die-hearted? Or maybe once their hearts die they are dead-hearted? It’s true that I have left my share of football, basketball, and soccer games amid a crowd that felt like a funeral procession….

Of course I knew what he meant. He was referring—and doing so admiringly, I might add, which is why I’m sure—to die-hard fans, those whose faith in the team dies hard (doesn’t want to die), those who cheer and sing lustily to encourage the guy who gets the ball at his feet deep in his own territory with a good fifty yards to travel through a rapidly advancing defensive line and three seconds on the clock; or yell and and wave their pennants for the last man at bat facing a 3-2 count and a score of 12-0 in the bottom of the ninth. And then go home yelling “We’ll get ’em next time!” A die-hard fan doesn’t give up. Webster’s identifies the word more with political or social determination, a refusal to yield to change; but of course sports fans can be just as stubborn, and just as ferocious.

Those die-hearted fans, though, would be just the opposite, I guess. Their faith quails as soon as the tide turns against the team; they can feel the old pump begin to stutter and flutter when a goal is scored against them in the first quarter. They do not wave their pennants, they do not cheer: they sink onto the bench and put their heads in their hands, or else they begin the long sad trek to the parking lot.

I like this new term. I don’t know whether I’d prefer the company of a die-hard or a die-heart—both seem disinclined to consider reality—I guess it would depend on what they’re die-hard or die-hearted about. I just like imagining saying to some pessimist, “Oh, don’t be such a die-heart!” If I pronounce my words carefully enough (as the speakers my students have heard evidently did not), I might make a point!

“Why should the taxpayer flip the bill?”

I’d like to be able to flip a coin to determine whether or not I have to pay a bill, but I don’t think that’s what my student meant here.

Nor do I think she was imagining a taxpayer turning a bill face-down (or face-up) on the “pay” pile. Of course maybe she was thinking about how bills were received at her house: Maybe her father flipped when he saw how high they were.

What we have here is ignorance of a figure of speech, “foot the bill.”

Now, figures of speech work because they create tiny pictures in the reader’s (or hearer’s) mind, and those tiny pictures convey meaning more vividly or immediately or charmingly or at least clearly than more mundane terms could. For instance, “You can talk yourself blue in the face before I pay any attention to you” may be longer than “Don’t waste your efforts trying to convince me,” but it is also stronger.

Sometimes, though, because language reflects its culture, the little pictures become inaccessible when the culture changes. Then we try to create pictures that make sense in our own context—and may or may not be right. A simple but useful example of this situation can be seen in the recurring analyses of the term “brand new.” Everybody uses the phrase, but most people are nonplussed if asked where it comes from. Was it always “brand,” evoking cattle, or “brand,” evoking something else, … or “bran,” an intriguing, but most likely only folk, etymology based on a notion of early packing noodles? (You can see a recent foray into “brand new” here.)

And as with Mondegreens and other creative errors, if the hearer has no access to the image on which the figure of speech depends, she will “hear” a word that makes more sense to her—or, in the case of my student here, a word that makes no less sense to her.

So for her, “foot the bill” becomes “flip the bill.”

The OED (print version) devotes FIVE PAGES to meanings of “foot.” Most of these are for “foot” as a noun. When we come to “foot” as a verb, we must travel through “dance,” “walk or step,” “traverse,” “establish or settle,” “kick or threaten to kick,” “tread or crush with the feet,” “use the feet in kicking,” “seize with talons, as a bird of prey,” “follow the tracks of, trace,” “make or attach a foot to,” “end with a postscript, as a letter,” AND THEN, “add up and set the sum at the foot of a bill” and “settle or pay a bill.” There are three more verb meanings or usages after that.

I have to admit that my little mental picture was for none of the above; it was, instead, a variant of “endorse”: I imagined that some people could co-sign a loan or approve a contract by signing it on the back (endorse), but that more commonly people did those things by adding their names at the bottom, the foot. By this picture, I would have made the taxpayer the default payer, so that if the government, or whoever, failed to settle up, the taxpayer would have to step forward (on, presumably, his or her feet!) and pay. But I was wrong, although not as wrong as if I had imagined some kind of acrobatic flipping going on.

By etymology, and by reason, when the taxpayer foots the bill, the taxpayer pays the bill: no middle-person involved. And that’s certainly true, since the government’s money is taxes, and so whenever the government spends money the actual spender is the conscientious taxpayer, loyally sending in every Ides of April his or her little investment in the well-being of the country. (For the purposes of etymological discussion I am ignoring investments from other nations here, so don’t mention China to me!)

Alas, many politicians are now suggesting that the taxpayer should be allowed to flip off the bill, especially the wealthy taxpayer. (Urban Dictionary will give you the meaning of this modern phrase, if you are in any doubt; I invite you to find your own way over to Wikipedia for more than you want to know about “the finger”…) My student’s question would suggest that she does NOT have this activity in mind, but does have an attitude that would be hospitable to it.

Our society seems to change at a perpetually accelerating rate. Use your own favorite figures of speech while they can still communicate to someone else. Maybe that’s the chief attraction of “retirement communities”: being of the same generation, everybody speaks the same language.

“A mother has a sick sense when it comes to her children.”

Oh, we all know what he meant: that famous SIXTH SENSE.

I suppose he often heard the expression but never saw it written down, or if he did see it written down he didn’t recognize it as that thing he had heard about. And I don’t condemn anyone who doesn’t pronounce it clearly enough for a child to picture all the letters: S-I-X-Th-Sense. Unless I’m doing some kind of diction demonstration, I don’t think I pronounce all the letters either.

As we know with Mondegreens and other such phenomena, when we hear something we don’t quite understand we often translate it into something that makes some sense to us (although not sixth sense). Clearly that’s what my student did here, and it does make sense, doesn’t it? Whether you think of that “sick sense” as being preternaturally perceptive, perversely suspicious, angst-ridden, or nauseated, it works pretty well to describe the feelings and insights that sometimes well up in the maternal brain.

That’s why I think my friend Philip will call this phrasing an eggcorn, a word substitution that has a kind of poetry to it. Only one word, but it really does say so much…

I myself could say more, but I leave it to your sixth sense to imagine what that could be!

“He got a ticket for failure to give the right away.”

Just a little mis-hearing, as is so often the case with these student errors.

One might be tempted to call it a mondegreen, but even though the hearer has substituted actual real words that change the meaning of the phrase, nothing really interesting has resulted. We have to call this one simple mis-hearing.

But mis-hearing is a concern, for at least two reasons. First, it suggests that the term or phrase is unfamiliar to the hearer, who then substitutes something that makes sense to her. But for a young adult who has lived in this culture for years—probably for her entire life—unfamiliarity with certain terms would seem to indicate having drifted semiconscious through life so far, including, in the case of today’s Horror, while studying for her driver’s license. Second, it suggests that the hearer either isn’t making an effort to actually make sense of what she hears, or has decided that this version makes sense and will carry it with her as a concept on which to base future action or thought.

For drivers, the right of way is a very important concept. At the four-way stops that characterize Connecticut intersections, knowing the rule for right of way is the only hope for avoiding either a collision or a four-way impasse. Indeed at any intersection, or at places where a driveway enters a roadway, safe and smooth passage depends on an awareness, on the part of all drivers involved, of the rules that govern right of way. The driver on a main road who stops to let someone come out of a driveway may be being “polite” or “nice,” but in fact risks being rear-ended or at least royally cursed out by drivers behind who had presumed that since cars on the road have the right of way they would proceed unimpeded. And the left-turner who decides to ignore oncoming traffic is violating right-of-way and putting many people at risk: himself, the oncoming drivers (possibly in three directions) who may not be able to stop, and drivers behind the oncoming driver who may also be unable to stop. My only driving accident (so far) involved me (as a fairly young driver) driving south on a main road, slowly because I was lost and trying to get myself located, and another driver deciding to make a left turn in front of me into a strip-mall driveway that was clearly marked “EXIT.” I stood on my brakes and managed only to clip his rear end (which I wish had been his ACTUAL rear end), but had I been going just a little faster the collision would have been considerably more serious.

My student seems to think, by her mis-hearing, that the driver HAS “the right” and that he got a ticket for refusing to give it away. I too would hope to stand by my rights—my civil rights are more important in this sense than my driving rights—but first I want to make sure I HAVE the right before I consider giving it up. The rules of the road for right-of-way are not rules of this kind, though: they are rules that allocate the right where there might be two or more claimants. In the case of the left-turner-into-exit-driveway, he should have “yielded the right of way” to me, since I was proceeding straight ahead on a main road. “Left turn never has the right of way” was, I’m sure, clearly printed in the little booklet I studied before my driver’s test. Perhaps left-turner-into-exit-driveway was, like my writer, convinced that HE had the right of way—inherently, perhaps, as a driver—and was damned if he was going to give it away.

I’ll bet he knew full well who had the right of way, since he “kindly” suggested we let our insurance companies settle up rather than calling the police (and I stupidly, or at least naïvely, or maybe even in a mild state of shock, went along with that).

Anyway. Don’t give your rights away! But learn what they are first. And on the road, learn THOSE rules, and yield the right of way when somebody else has it.

“Laura is suffering from a medical condition called pleurosis, which made one of her legs shorter than the other.”

In Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Laura remembers a handsome and popular boy from high school who had “always” called her “Blue Roses” because she had missed some school while suffering from pleurosis and he had mis-heard the term. That’s a mistake that aficionados of error would call a Mondegreen, but in the play it’s a cherished, and perhaps exaggerated, memory.

Laura is also painfully self-conscious because in her youth she had had to wear a leg brace and, with the pitiful vanity of most of us who worry about some perceived flaw, believed every eye was on her clumsy self whenever she walked into a room. She no longer needs the brace, but whatever the affliction was, it has shortened the affected leg. Williams directs that the actress playing Laura suggest a limp rather than actually play it (although I saw a production where the director defied Williams on this, to the play’s detriment). The young man, now grown up and entering the play as the Gentleman Caller, protests that he never even noticed Laura’s brace in high school; the audience is left to decide whether this was because it really wasn’t as awful as Laura had thought, or because he had never really noticed much about her.

My student is describing Laura. She is also writing new chapters into the annals of medicine.

All teachers of writing at the college level have struggled to explain to their students the difference between “defining your terms” and “telling the reader what the dictionary says.” Young writers seem determined to share Webster’s wisdom with their readers—who, they evidently think, have limited vocabularies and no dictionaries at hand. The words they choose to define are quite often perfectly common words, and the definitions are, typically, straight out of some print or online dictionary, with no added nuance or emphasis. Sure, once in a while including the dictionary definition can be useful to a paper: I remember writing a paper on The Rainbow that used the multiple definitions of “rainbow” in (probably) Webster’s Second as the organizing principle of the discussion, and the professor and I seemed to think that worked pretty well. But USUALLY, I intone to my classes, we “define our terms” when we are modifying, adding to, qualifying, making figurative, or otherwise appropriating a term to our own purposes.

Obviously this student wanted to define her terms—or Williams’ terms. I don’t think it was my preaching that kept her away from the dictionary for that purpose; I think she just thought Williams had given Laura one affliction instead of two (three, if to the leg problem and pleurosis you add neurosis, that shyness of hers). Laura had pleurosis; Laura limps: pleurosis causes shortening of the limbs, Q.E.D.

Perhaps she did go to a dictionary and failed to find “pleurosis.” It’s not a term much in use.

But she would have found, right where she had looked for “pleurosis,” pleura, “the delicate serous membrane that lines each half of the thorax of mammals and is folded back over the surface of the lung of the same side”; pleurisy, “inflammation of the pleura usually with fever, painful and difficult respiration, cough, and exudation into the pleural cavity”; and, a little farther down, pleuropneumonia, “combined inflammation of the pleura and lungs.” (Thanks as usual, Mr. W.) Today, if she were to Google “pleurosis,” she would be helpfully directed to numerous sites offering definitions of “pleurisy,” which is probably what Laura had suffered from for a while one year in high school.

Armed with that information, my student might have wondered for a least a moment how a lung (or pleural) disease could shorten a leg—a part of the body not mentioned or even hinted at in any of the above definitions. Oh, please, please, then, DON’T let her have looked the word up! I would far rather contemplate a student too self-confident or too lazy to consult a dictionary, than a student who blithely assumes a causal connection between afflictions of two different systems and two different parts of the body.

Next time I launch into an explanation of “defining your terms,” I’d better include a brief comment about “engaging your brain.”

“The parents felt the nude drawings would be a dramatizing thing to see.”

Just a hearing error, you say. Just another heard word transposed into a familiar one, noticed only when written down. I knew what she meant.

Ah, but this is also another instance where the ghost of S. Freud seems to have been whispering in the student’s ear. Not quite a pun this time, but an apt error.

The subject was a controversy at a community theater that annually hosted an exhibit of the work of local painters in the lobby—a mutually beneficial collaboration of serious amateurs in the arts. The theater had also instituted a summer day-camp for children: their activities were limited to the stage and backstage areas. Through no fault of anybody, the art exhibit and the camp overlapped; and in the year in question, through no wrongful intention of anybody, several of the paintings were nudes.

Well, boys will be boys, and parents will be parents. Wandering and gawking during the camp’s lunch breaks led to whispering and giggling (and perhaps a bit of play-acting) at home, and one day the theater office was stormed by a phalanx of mothers concerned that their 8-year-old boys were being subjected to pornography. The “compromise” worked out by the parents and the theater board enraged the artist whose work (not pornography, by the way) was the subject of the conflict, and both in reality and in the somewhat simpler case I presented to my writing students the story did not end happily. Students were to take a side and defend it.

That my writer had heard “traumatizing” as “dramatizing” was not all that remarkable; even if she had heard it numerous times, as long as she had never seen it written down there’s no reason to expect that she would have detected her error. What makes the error funny, or punny, as you have surely noticed, is the context: boys assuming the nudes’ poses to entertain one another (and remind themselves of the lobby’s thrills); boys being “dramatized” in a theater; an innocent situation turning into high drama. We would have to find out whether the writer had assumed the word was “dramatizing” before she encountered this theatrical case if we wanted to attribute the error to the context. My suspicion is that the error predated the assignment and the sentence is funny, or comically apt, through mere coincidence.

But the unconscious mind does have a wicked sense of humor (witness: dreams), and I like to think hers was exercising it here.