Words are too much fun, especially when you get them wrong. Like a friend who for years thought soap operas were actually “so propers.” The strange letter “elemeno” that comes between K and P. Or the bizarre line in the Pledge of Allegiance some of us heard as kids, the one that mentions “the Republic for witches’ stands.”
There’s actually a word for the phenomenon of accidently distorting words, and that word is malapropism. The term was coined in honor of Mrs. Malaprop, a blundering character in Richard Sheridan’s 1775 play “The Rivals,” and you can find amusing examples everywhere.
Even in the name of God – which is either Howard or Peter, by the way. One pal could have sworn it was Howard. After all, it says so right in the prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, Howard be thy name.”
I must have gone to a different church, since I always knew God as Peter. The adults would chant the refrain in response to the priest telling them something they should be grateful for: “Thanks, Peter God.”
Christmas carols are another place malapropisms like to pop up.
One that still sticks in my head is “We three kings of Orient-R.” As if Orient-R were some faraway, magical place (not to be confused with Orient-S or Orient-T). Years later, I realized an awkward line break was to blame. “We three kings of Orient are / bearing gifts we bring from afar.”
“Silent Night” gets into the game, one friend points out, with the mention of “Round John Virgin.” While we don’t recall such a person showing up in any Sunday school lessons, this Round John Virgin certainly sounds like an interesting character.
Until we realize the words are actually “round yon virgin,” referring to the calmness and brightness of the previous line swirling around yonder virgin.
Another interesting character gets a nod in “Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Just when you thought Santa had his hands full with eight black-nosed reindeer and one red-nosed one, along comes another.
Her name is Olive, and she sounds like Rudolf’s worst antagonist. “Olive the other reindeer / used to laugh and call him names.” One friend even posted a pic of the 1999 TV movie, based on the book.
But don’t worry. Olive is not a bully at all in the flick. In fact, she’s a dog who wants to save Christmas. I won’t say anymore, just in case it’s on your watch list.
In songs or poems, the misheard words are also called mondegreens. Writer Sylvia Wright came up with the term in honor of Lady Modegreen, a heroine she thought was killed with the Earl of Murray at the end of a Scottish ballad she heard as a child.
Ends up the “Lady Mondegreen” she heard mentioned in the last line didn’t die at all. She didn’t even exist at all. Earl of Murray was slain by his lonesome, and the killers “lay him on the green.”
Modegreens can be hilarious, but they can also have an impact on your career. Just ask The Beach Boys. One of my musician-poet pals said the group turned down Bob Dylan’s offer to record his “Lay, Lady, Lay” song because they didn’t like one of the lines.
They thought the line “Lay across my big brass bed” was saying “Lay across my big breasts, babe.” Maybe big breasts on surfer-dude musicians just didn’t paint the right picture?
You’ll find famous mondegreens in a host of songs, such as those by Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, and Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR). The line in Jimi’s “Purple Haze” that talks about kissing the sky is often misheard as, “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.”
Elton’s “Tiny Dancer” song says, “Hold me closer, tiny dancer.” It’s often misconstrued as “Hold me closer, Tony Danza.”
And CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising” has a line that may have brought relief to concert-goers for decades – until they realized they were hearing it wrong. “There’s a bad moon on the rise” has been repeatedly mistaken for “There’s a bathroom on the right.”
When it comes to malapropisms, some are famous, some are lesser-known, and some are definitely one of a kind. I’m guessing few, if any others heard the strange chorus I did at the end of the Rod Stewart song “Every Picture Tells a Story.”
If you know the song title, it’s obvious the ending lines repeat “Every picture tells a story, don’t it.” For years, I had no clue what the name of the song was. Nor was I sure why Rod kept repeating such a mean little chorus at the end: “Every bitch is just a stony moanie.”
Another classic comes from a friend’s wife who puts a new spin on an old phrase. Never mind the boring old bull who wreaks havoc on glass items. She refers to the destruction-causing type as a “bear in a china shop.”
And one final faux pas comes from a long-ago job in a New York City pet shop. I was new and freshly relocated from Michigan, asking the assistant manager what fish tank filter I should recommend.
“The Whispa,” he told me. “The Whispa is great, and it comes in different sizes for different-sized tanks.”
Perfect. So I would always recommend the Whispa. And people would always look at me weird. I never understood why until I actually went to grab a Whispa off the shelf one day – and saw the brand name was “Whisper.”
Geesh. That’s why people looked at me weird! Here was a gal with a Midwestern twang suddenly sliding into a New York accent to recommend the “Whispa” fish tank filter. No wonder I never sold any.
Oh well, live and learn. Better yet, laugh and learn. Whether you’re trying to sell a Whispa or taking a ride to Orient-R.