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shameless pleading

Mondegreens

Green grow the lyrics.

Dear WD: I have been puzzled by a phrase that I have heard a few times. However, I am not sure whether the phrase should be “for all intensive purposes” or “for all intents and purposes.” I would appreciate your help in clarifying this concern. — K.T.

Hey kids, it’s Mondegreen Time! Don’t look at me that way — I’ll explain in a moment. First, I should note that K.T. sent me another e-mail message just minutes after (his? her?) first, explaining that the matter was resolved and that (he? she?) had determined that the phrase was, of course, “for all intents and purposes.”

So why am I persisting in answering this question? First, because it’s a remarkably common question, and, second, because it’s a good example of what we word mechanics call a “mondegreen,” or a mishearing of a popular phrase or song lyric. The term “mondegreen” was invented by the writer Sylvia Wright in 1954, and for an explanation of the circumstances, we turn to Mr. Mondegreen himself, columnist Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle, who has made it his personal crusade to popularize the care and feeding of mondegreens:

“As a child [Sylvia Wright] had heard the Scottish ballad ”The Bonny Earl of Murray” and had believed that one stanza went like this: Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands, Oh where hae you been?, They hae slay the Earl of Murray, And Lady Mondegreen.

“Poor Lady Mondegreen, thought Sylvia Wright. A tragic heroine dying with her liege; how poetic. When it turned out, some years later, that what they had actually done was slay the Earl of Murray and lay him on the green, Wright was so distraught by the sudden disappearance of her heroine that she memorialized her with a neologism.”

Probably the all-time best-known mondegreen is the classic “Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear” (from the old hymn “Gladly the Cross I’d Bear”), but both popular idioms and rock music lyrics are mother lodes of the critters. Given the right circumstances (inattention, lack of sleep, too many Twinkies), who among us is not capable of hearing “it’s a doggy-dog world” (dog-eat-dog), or concluding that Bob Dylan’s lyrics were even stranger than we thought: “Dead ants are my friends, they’re blowin’ in the wind.”?

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