Tag Archives: mondegreen

“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.


“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.