A mondegreen is a word or phrase derived from misunderstood song lyrics. It came from a song with the words, “…and laid him on the green,” which was interpreted to be “…and Lady Mondegreen.” I remember a joke I read when I was a kid describing a kid in Sunday School drawing a nativity scene with a roly-poly fellow standing off to the side. When the teacher inquired about him, the kid said it was “round John Virgin.”
So okay. I hardly know any Beatles lyrics, so I can’t appreciate the humor in this Soup to Nutz strip, but you probably do, so you probably will.
If you’re of a didactic bent, feel to translate these into the real lyrics for me in the comments.
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If you’ve read more than about three articles on this site, you know that I promulgate expository writing, writing designed to convey information so readers absorb the information effortlessly. (Promulgate means to set forth or teach publicly, but you knew that, right?)
Sometimes idioms and figures of speech can be taken literally, and this generally doesn’t promote understanding. Here’s a Gasoline Alley; the first two rows give a humorous take on this danger.
(The last row repeats a joke that has to be more than 50 years old, but I digress.)
Rule of thumb: When you explain something, be direct and literal.
A related situation is when you write something that will or might be translated. Idioms and figures of speech are notorious for causing problems in other languages. This goes both ways, so be careful when you read something translated into English. Google “badly translated into English” to find some humorous examples, but this can be a serious problem if the writing is about a serious subject. So be careful.
When you listen to spoken language, if you misunderstand, often you can’t go back and re-hear it.
Besides not being able to re-listen to what you hear, sometimes the written form is just plain clearer than the spoken form. The fidelity of the instrument you’re listening on might be poor. Foreign accents can make someone hard to decipher even though the person’s written English is fine. (I get a lot of this from
headhunters technical recruiters whose first language is something besides English. My hearing problem doesn’t make it any easier, either. I’ve gotten into the habit of asking for an email, which I promise to respond to quickly.)
There’s another problem with spoken language that applies to about everyone. That’s when one word ends with the same sound that the next word begins with. Did you know that “share drive” is really “shared drive”? Say that pair aloud. They vary by only a couple hundredths of a second on that “d” in the middle, so it’s easy to miss. Some other combinations of sounds produce this effect, and that couple hundredths is the basis of today’s comic, The Lockhorns by Bunny Hoest and John Reiner. Sorry, I lost the link.
You probably have a few favorites of this kind of combinatorial problem (it’s called sandhi, by the way). I invite you to share in the comments.
In English (and other languages) we have pairs of words that go together. If you use one, you should use the other. Some pairs that come to mind are:
not only—but also
on the one hand—on the other hand (some wags add “on the third hand”)
Greek has one called the “men—de” construction. Okay, here’s the Greek; I know you’re curious: μεν … δε.
See how funny it seems when someone gets it wrong? (Second cell.) The comic is Curtis, by Ray Billingsley.
Do any other pairs come to mind? Share in the comments.
The comic Luann (here Luann Againn), by Greg Evans, has a character characterized by interest in physical appearance and lack of interest in things academic. Her loss. But she’s a good example of what not to do, so that’s a good thing, I guess. Does her mistake jump out at you? If you’re a regular reader of this humble site, it should.
Right! When you compare two things, you use the comparative form, not the superlative. It’s “better,” not “best.” And when you’re not comparing anything, use the positive form, in this case, “good.” Poor Tiffany.