Check Your Herring

"Mondegreen"? Did I hear you right?

Many language lovers’ favorite time is when a dictionary is updated, because they can see what new words make the cut as being “real” English. Merriam-Webster is releasing an updated Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary this fall, and has already posted some of the changes on its Web site.

One new word is “mondegreen.” M-W defines it as “a word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung,” and gives among the examples “’scuse me while I kiss this guy” as a mondegreen of the Jimi Hendrix lyrics “’scuse me while I kiss the sky.” A mondegreen is different from a malaprop, where the word is spoken incorrectly.

According to M-W and the Oxford English Dictionary, which already includes “mondegreen,” the author Sylvia Wright coined the term in a November 1954 article in Harper’s. As a child, she wrote, she misheard a line from an old English ballad, “The Bonnie Earl O’ Murray.” As she heard it, the last lines were “They hae slain the Earl Amurray / And Lady Mondegreen.” (In reality, they had slain the Earl of Murray, “And laid him on the green.”) Wright wrote: “The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.”

While mondegreens are often associated with song lyrics, they also appear a lot in journalism. In 2002, The New York Times published a book entitled Kill Duck Before Serving, a collection of errors the newspaper had printed. The collection featured more than its fair share of mondegreens. Here are a few:

April 28, 1991: “A report about Myrna Hollinger, a designer of wearable art, rendered a word incorrectly in quoting her. She said, ‘Detritus is what interests me’; she did not say ‘the tritest.’”

August 16, 2000: “A transcript of President Clinton’s speech to the Democratic National Convention rendered his concluding passage incorrectly. Mr. Clinton said, ‘And, remember, whenever you think about me, keep putting people first.’ (He did not say ‘whatever you think about me.’)”

September 17, 1995: “A quotation by the late civil rights lawyer William M. Kunstler was rendered incorrectly in some copies. He wrote, ‘The Kennedys’ real immorality has to do with their lack of ethics as political leaders rather than their sexual exploits’; he did not say ‘immortality.’”

May 30, 1993: “Because of a transmission error, an interview with Mary Matalin, a former deputy manager of the Bush campaign who is a co-host of a new talk show on CNBC, quoted her incorrectly on the talk show host Rush Limbaugh. She said he was “sui generis,” not ‘sweet, generous.’”

April 7, 1995: “Because of a transcription error, an article about Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato’s remarks about Judge Lance A. Ito misquoted the Senator at one point. In his conversation with the radio host Don Imus, he said: ‘I mean this is a disgrace. Judge Ito will be well known.’ He did not say ‘Judge Ito with the wet nose.’”

Be careful out there. People are listing.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.