Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

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Donald Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes has done some memorable interviews during the presidential campaign, but a recent gaffe on CNN may have been the topper. While defending a Trump attack on Hillary Clinton supporters Jay Z and Beyoncé, Hughes referred to Jay Z and Kanye West’s 2012 video for “No Church in the Wild,” which featured a Molotov cocktail.

Only Hughes didn’t say “Molotov cocktail.” She said “mazel tov cocktail.” Oy vay!

That’s a perfect example of a mondegreen. What is a mondegreen? I’m glad I asked me that. To begin, here are some examples from song lyrics:

  • Two women were discussing Beatles songs. “I’ve never understood,” one woman wondered,” why in “‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,’ they sing, ‘the girl with colitis goes by.'” After puzzled pause, her friends lit up. “Ah,” she rejoined, it’s ‘the girl with kaleidoscope eyes.'”
  • “Clown control to Mao Zedong” is as colorful and imaginative as David Bowie’s original lyric, “Ground control to Major Tom.”
  • It’s “Oh, beautiful for spacious skies,” not “Oh, beautiful for space ship guys.”
  • George Gershwin wrote “Rhapsody in Blue,” not “Rap City in Blue.”
  • To the surprise of many rock-and-roll enthusiasts, Jimi Hendrix sang, “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky,” not “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy.”
  • And if Davy Crockett was “killed in a bar when he was only three,” who was that at the Alamo?

The word mondegreen was coined by Sylvia Wright, who wrote about such words in a 1954 Harper’s column, in which she recounted hearing a Scottish folk ballad, “The Bonny Earl of Murray.” She heard the lyric “Oh, they have slain the Earl of Murray/And Lady Mondegreen.” Wright powerfully identified with Lady Mondegreen, the faithful friend of the Bonny Earl. Lady Mondegreen died for her liege with dignity and tragedy. How romantic!

It was some years later that Sylvia Wright learned that the last two lines of the stanza were really “They have slain the Earl of Murray/And laid him on the green.” She named such sweet slips of the ear mondegreens, and this they have been called ever since.

Children are innocently brilliant at concocting fresh and original interpretations of the boundaries that separate words in fresh and unconventional ways. Our patriotic and religious songs and vows have been delightfully revised by misspelt youth:

José, can you see
By the Donzerly light?
Oh, the ramrods we washed
Were so gallantly steaming.
And the rockets’ red glare,
The bombs bursting in there,
Grapefruit through the night
That our flag was still rare.

***

I pledge the pigeons to the flag
Of the United States of America
And to the republic for Richard Stans,
One naked individual, underground,
With liver, tea, injustice for all.

***

God bless America, land that I love.
Stand aside, sir, and guide her,
With delight through the night from a bulb.

***

Our Father, Art, in Heaven,
Harold be Thy name.
Thy King done come. They will be done
On earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our jelly bread,
And forgive us our press passes
As we forgive those who press past us.
And lead us not into Penn Station,
But deliver us some e-mail . . .

Scads of children have grown up thinking they were singing about an ophthalmologically challenged ursine named Gladly — “the cross-eyed bear.” For all intensive purposes, one must never take such hilarious mondegreens for granite. In fact, these linguistic treasures should win a pullet surprise!