Marge and Tina, meet Richard Stans.
A few days ago, I took the occasion of a reader’s query about “for all intensive purposes” (which is, of course, a mangled rendition of “for all intents and purposes”) to introduce the subject of “mondegreens.” Mondegreens are humorous mishearings of popular phrases and song lyrics, so-named by writer Sylvia Wright in 1954. She had heard one stanza of the Scottish ballad ”The Bonny Earl of Murray” as “Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands, Oh where hae you been?, They hae slay the Earl of Murray, And Lady Mondegreen,” and only much later realized that the last line was actually “And laid him on the green.” No Lady Mondegreen. Oops, or, as Emily Littella would say, “Never mind.”
Mondegreens vary in intensity, as you might expect, and some are a bit difficult to swallow. Mondegreen maven Jon Carroll, a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle, recounts a mishearing of the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance that must be at least partly apocryphal: “I pledge a lesion to the flag, of the United State of America, and to the republic for Richard Stans, one naked individual, with liver tea and just this for all.” But entirely believable (to me, anyway) is one of Carroll’s readers mishearing the tedious anthem from “Evita” as “Don’t cry for me, Marge and Tina,” or another reader’s puzzlement over Rod Stewart’s insistence that “Every picture tells a story doughnut.” My personal favorite among Jon Carroll’s mondegreen crop comes from the reader who “recounted the story of the pet shop clerk who told him, in all seriousness, that her parents’ wealth did them no good at all because they just sat around their backyard deck in Marin [County, California] and ‘drank themselves to Bolivia.’” Sounds like fun.
But now it’s time to fess up to my own mondegreen fiasco. Several years ago I devoted an entire column to the word “noisome” (meaning “obnoxious”). I used as my angle the classic Kinks song “Superman,” wherein the protagonist laments, “Looked in the mirror/what did I see?/a noisome weakling/with knobbly knees” Except that he doesn’t, in fact, say “noisome.” As a helpful reader later pointed out, the actual words are (referring to the British system of measuring weight) “nine stone,” or about 126 pounds. Oops. Never mind.