Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Mondegreens and Ambiguity

I’m back from my annual visitation to North Carolina, where that beautiful accent is fading fast. I think I mentioned before that all my nieces and nephews, and now, grandnieces and grandnephews, speak in the tongue of Midwesterners. Glad I captured the spirit of the old accent in my Glossary of Quaint Southernisms while I had the chance.

I found this note from Bill Pelz on my arrival:

What about a mondegreen that comes from reading rather than from hearing? A favorite in my family has long been:

“The lad had a feebly growing down on his chin.”

The ambiguity that allows ‘feebly’ to be perceived as a noun would be destroyed by the application of a hyphen so is it just a punctuation error rather than a true mondegreen? However, the noun “feebly” could also come from mis-hearing the spoken sentence’s stress pattern and the intervals between words. I imagine a feeblie (my preferred spelling) as a long, thin, pale, and floppy growth—a super-mole or super-wart.

So, is ‘feeblie’ a subspecies of mondegreen, a hybrid, or a separate species?

I think most rhetoricians would think of this as a simple ambiguity: a sentence that allows two parsings, the stuff of puns.  A mondegreen is what linguists call reanalysis, the accidental misanalysis of a word or phrase, as “Gladly, the Cross I’d bear” was supposedly misanalyzed by a child in Sunday School as “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear”. 

The 20th century’s most famous linguist, Noam Chomsky argues that ambiguities like “Flying airplanes can be dangerous,” prove that syntax, even though invisible, is a branching structure. The ambiguity in this phrase depends on whether “flying” is the head to which “airplanes” is subordinated or a participle subordinated to “airplanes”. Since him many more have been stumbled upon: “Eating lions can be risky,” “Attacking dogs can get tiresome,” etc.

Groucho Marx was a master at them: “Yesterday I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How an elephant got in my pajamas, I’ll never know.” We can make them up easily: “Gerald ate his salad without dressing,” “Chumley found Gwendolyn with a spyglass,” etc. Groucho’s examples differed from Chomsky’s by relying on a prepositional phrase that could modify either of two nouns, usually a subject and a predicate. The association with the subject made sense while the association with the predicate (direct object) made facetious nonsense.

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