Did you know that the English alphabet once had 27 characters? It used to be:
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z &
Raise your hand if you have just read the last characters as “X, Y, Z, ampersand!” If you did, you’ve just once again propagated a mistake made centuries ago.
In the early 1800s, school children often ended their alphabet recitations with “ex, why, zed, and per se and.” Per se means by itself in Latin, so and per se and means and ‘and’ by itself. Over time, the words and per se and became clumped together and, like a bad (or really good) game of telephone, the words became ampersand.*
The history of the ampersand is quite interesting in and of itself (an interesting history per se?), but its story is merely here to introduce the concept of a mondegreen: the mishearing and misinterpretation of something due to some mistake in pronunciation or sound perception.
The term mondegreen came from Sylvia Wright, an early 20th-century American writer. At a young age, Wright had read a 17th-century ballet called The Bonny Earl O’Moray. In it, the pivotal lines are:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,
And laid him on the green.
Except, when read aloud, Wright had misheard the last line as:
And Lady Mondegreen.
This, of course, had produced an effect that the writer probably did not at all intend.
Wright admitted that she had perceived that someone had slain the bonny Earl AND Lady Mondegreen and that the two of them lay dying together. In truth, there was never a woman mentioned in the four lines – and, thus, was born the word mondegreen.**
As a side story: my discovery of this word, in turn, led me to look up a related word “game” called a holorime (or holorhyme).*** This is a type of verse where a rhyme maintains itself across an entire line or phrase. For example:
Poor old Dali loped with an amazin’ raging cyst, as
poor Roald Dahl eloped with Anna-May’s enraging sisters.
— Steven F. Smith
Not that anyone of us will go out and immediately start rhyming whole sentences; nevertheless, it’s still interesting to know that there’s actually a word that describes our ability to fantastically misunderstand something. It’s thanks to Wright, that, decades later, we now have a specific term to describe this pretty entertaining Volkswagen commercial:
*The character ‘&’ itself was the result of combining the letters ‘e’ and ‘t’ (et is and in Latin).
**Portuguese actually also has a word describing this phenomenon: virundum.
***In French, one can produce these vers holorimes/olorimes as well. Par exemple:
Par les bois du djinn, où s’entasse de l’effroi,
Parle et bois du gin, ou cent tasses de lait froid.
(By the woods of the djinn, where fear abounds,)
(Talk and drink gin, or a hundred cups of cold milk.)
– Alphonse Allais
Want to read more about other uncommon words? See the Interesting Words page.