I was once completely baffled because of what someone said to me. Later I found out I had misheard, and in fact there was nothing to be baffled about. The words that were spoken to me, and the words I heard, were two completely different things. Yet they sounded exactly the same. There’s a name for this bizarre phonetic misunderstanding. It’s called a “Mondegreen.” Beware.
I learned the hard way. It all started with a conversation I was having with a dear friend of mine who was recounting a sad chapter in her family’s history. It involved her grandparents. Specifically, it involved the time Grandpa moved out of his house and into the garage. He lived there the rest of his life, in a garage-based bachelor apartment. It hadn’t been his choice. Grandma forced him out.
Grandpa had a penchant for booze. This had been discussed several times, but one night he came home drunk yet again. It was the last straw. Fed up, Grandma altered forever his living arrangements.
It was quite a decent apartment he made for himself in the garage, according to my friend, who shed a wistful tear describing it. Grandpa had set up a bed, and a rudimentary kitchen. Remarkably, he continued to be on more or less amicable terms with Grandma. He simply was not allowed into the house.
Now, here’s where the misheard phrase, the Mondegreen, reared its ugly head. My friend was describing the fateful, last-straw night when Grandpa stumbled home drunk. “Grandma scolded him,” my friend explained. “Then she made a mistake, and banished him to the garage forever.”
Bafflement came upon me. Grandma “made a mistake?” Well, I thought, if it was a mistake to send Grandpa into the garage, why didn’t she correct the mistake and invite him back into the house? He was only ten feet away. In the garage. She could have gone over and addressed the issue.
Then something else occurred to me. Perhaps she had indeed tried to correct her mistake, but Grandpa rebuffed her, refusing on principle to move back into the house after being so ignominiously ejected.
Still, it didn’t make sense. Grandma makes one mistake and ends up paying for it the rest of her life. And Grandpa ends up suffering in the garage, living amongst the shovels and motor oil.
This was far too high a price to pay for one lousy mistake.
So I asked my friend to elaborate on this horrible, life-shattering “mistake” Grandma had made when she exiled Grandpa.
“No,” my friend said. “She made him a steak.”
She made him a steak. My friend mentioned this steak-making in order to illustrate just how civilized the whole banishment process was. Grandma quite calmly informed Grandpa that he had come home drunk one too many times, and that from now on he would have to live in the garage. As a gesture of farewell, she made him a steak. It was, in a sense, his last supper. When he was finished eating he want to the garage and lived there the rest of his life. And it wasn’t a bad little apartment.
So, it wasn’t that she made a mistake. She made him a steak. But try distinguishing these two phrases if they’re not written down. I couldn’t. And that’s why I was temporarily baffled. I was also a little embarrassed at having pried into my friend’s sad family history, asking about this “mistake” Grandma had supposedly made. All in all, it was an unfortunate discussion.
What makes it slightly less embarrassing is the fact that I’m not the first victim of this linguistic trap, the treacherous Mondegreen, and I won’t be the last. The term Mondegreen was coined in a 1954 Harper’s magazine article in which writer Sylvia Wright confessed to mishearing the lyrics of the Scottish Ballad “The Bonny Earl of Moray.” Wright erroneously thought the song said: “They have slain the Earl of Moray, and Lady Mondegreen.” But there was no Lady Mondegreen! The real lyric was “laid him on the green.” Not “Lady Mondegreen.” The words sound alike. Wright’s confusion was understandable. She made a mistake.
published in the National Post, Spring 2003