Mondegreens

by Marnanel Thurman

When I was about six years old, I decided to make a poetry anthology in an old school exercise book. For the next two or three years, whenever I found a poem I liked, I added it to the book. There are even a few compositions of my own in there.

One of the poems is the lyrics of Lily the Pink, a song about the redoubtable Lydia Pinkham that we'd learned at school. In reality, the chorus of this song begins:

We'll drink-a-drink-a-drink
To Lily the Pink, the Pink, the Pink,
The saviour of
The human race

But at infant school they didn't give you a sheet with the words, because they assumed you couldn't read, so I had to work out the lyrics from listening to the other children and the teacher. Unsurprisingly, then, the version of the song in my anthology goes:

Drink a drink a drink
Lily the Pink a pink a pink
To save your eye
The human ray hay hace.

Errors like this are known as mondegreens, after a 1957 article by Sylvia Wright in Harper's. Ms Wright notes that when she first heard the ballad The Bonnie Earl o'Murray (Childs 181), whose first verse runs

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where have you been?
They have slain the Earl o' Murray
And laid him on the green.

she misheard the last two lines as:

They have slain the Earl of Murray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

Mondegreens are a sort of copyist's error in the passing on of culture, and they crop up everywhere.

There are dozens involving Christmas carols. Have a look for collections around the web and send me your favourites, or some of your own.