Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Written Mondegreens?

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, grandneices 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.

The 20th century’s most famous linguist, Noam Chomsky, argues that ambiguities like “Flying airplanes can be dangerous,” prove that syntax, even though invisible, has 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 Chomsky, many more such examples have been discovered: “Eating lions can be risky,” “Attacking dogs can be scary,” 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.

I don’t know that such examples have a name; maybe we need one since misanalyzing statements can be so funny.

One Response to “Written Mondegreens?”

  1. Laura Payne Says:

    Great blog. I have a language blog too and have written about mondegreens a couple of times.

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