Linguistic Mondegreens

Musical "mondegreens" have long been a source of amusement and laughter, perhaps because many of us have experienced them. A "mondegreen" is a misinterpretation of a phrase or statement, often applied to misheard song lyrics. For instance, Jimi Hendrix's "Scuse me while I kiss the sky" has been misheard as "Scuse me while I kiss this guy," and the line "there's a bad moon on the rise" from Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising" has been misconstrued as "there's a bathroom on the right." Incidentally, the word "mondegreen" was coined in 1954 by US writer Sylvia Wright, who had misunderstood the line "They hae slain the Earl O' Moray/And laid him on the green" in the 17th-century ballad "The Ballad of Earl O'Murray" as "They hae slain the Earl O' Moray/And Lady Mondegreen."

Interestingly, there are linguistic "mondegreens" resulting from the mishearing of a word or phrase in a source language, leading to a mistranslation in the target language that is widely adopted, often by speakers who are completely unaware of the mistake.

One of the biggest musical hits in 1956 in the English-speaking world was a tune called "The Poor People of Paris." A version of the song by Les Baxter's Orchestra reached number one on the Billboard Top 100 record singles chart on March 24, 1956 and stayed there for six weeks. A few weeks later, on April 13, West Indian pianist Winifred Atwell hit number one on the UK Singles Chart with her version of "The Poor People of Paris." That would have been perfectly fine, except that this wasn't the correct name of the song.

"The Poor People of Paris" was taken from the French song "La goualante du Pauvre Jean," which has been recorded by such artists as Edith Piaf. The title literally means "The Ballad of Poor Jean." The problem is that "Pauvre Jean" ("Poor Jean") sounds exactly like "Pauvres Gens" ("Poor People"), as "Jean" and "Gens" are homophones, and the plural "s" in "Pauvres" is silent. Supposedly, the original title of the song was conveyed orally over the phone to the English-language adapter, who, without context, simply misinterpreted it and perhaps added the "of Paris" as an homage to the song's French origins. Hence, millions of music lovers have purchased and admired a tune about a big-time hustler that they have perhaps misunderstood as a moving number about the down-and-out masses of the French capital.

A similar misrendering of the English sentence "if I see you a third time, I'll scream" may have taken place in Israel/Palestine during the British occupation of the region, leading to a curious Hebrew idiom for "third time's a charm" or "we meet again," as Jacob Shwirtz explains:
The Hebrew expression for "third time’s a charm" is "pa’am shlishit glida," which translates to "third time is ice cream"; this term comes from the time of the British Mandate when the English would say, "If I see you a third time, I’ll scream." Israelis heard "ice cream" and the phrase stuck.
This theory, however, is somewhat controversial and has been challenged by Balashon. Nevertheless, it might be a sweet idea, when you unexpectedly run into someone on three consecutive occasions, to invite him/her for some ice cream.

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)

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