I learned the word “mondegreen” a few years ago after watching the movie 27 Dresses. There’s an entertaining scene in which two characters try to navigate the lyrics of “Bennie and the Jets,” both butchering it completely. I knew what they were facing—that issue of hearing the lyrics to a song and getting them wrong—but I didn’t know it had a name.
The word “mondegreen” is itself a mondegreen. The woman who coined the term grew up hearing her mother read a Scottish ballad to her that had the line, “And laid him on the green.” As a child, she heard it as “And Lady Mondegreen.” Finally! A label for this concept!
There are very familiar mondegreens: “There’s a bathroom on the right,” “Gladly the cross-eyed bear.” And there are those mondegreens that are particular to each of us—some phrase or lyric that we misheard for years and now look back to with a measure of fondness, chuckling at our mistaken selves.
For years I thought the verb, “avert” had a secondary, little-used meaning: “to set upon.” You know, such as in the phrase, “Patience is avert you.” But perhaps my favorite personal mondegreen is a Christmassy one.
I had a visual of Bethlehem in my mind as a small child. It was nestled in hills completely covered by tall evergreen bushes. It was lush and green—decidedly NOT a desert city in the Middle East. Where did I get this picture? From the line in “O Holy Night” that says, “Long lay the world in sin and arbor vitae.” We had arbor vitae at the corners of our house. I loved the huge evergreen bushes. And they were in Bethlehem, too!
It was with some slight disappointment that I grew up and discovered that the line was “sin and error pining”—and not only that, “pining” had nothing to do with evergreens in this context either. Christmas disappointment all around.