mondegreen

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:

new line
Notes:
*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.

Sources:
Dictionary.com
Wikipedia – Holorime
Wikipedia – Mondegreen
Wikipedia – Vers holorimes
Veja

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miswant

I’ve been pretty busy with some work so my posting schedule has suffered, but since it’s the holiday season, I figure it’s the perfect time to talk a little bit about this very useful word. 🙂

As opposed to my other choices, which usually can be rather obscure, miswant, on the other hand, is actually a very simple word and concept. The only thing I don’t understand, actually, is why it’s practically never used.

Miswant basically means wanting something for the wrong reason. It’s pretty much the sayings “be careful what you wish for,” or “there are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it,” summed up in one succinct word. 😀

Why do I not see this word being used more often? Especially around Christmas, when, everywhere I look, it’s always people getting things they don’t want/need. We’d probably all be better off if this word became part of our daily vocabulary. 😉

Want to read more about other uncommon words? 🙂 See the Interesting Words page.

Sources:
Wiktionary – miswant
World Wide Words – Miswanting

phantasmagoric

As it is Halloween, I think this is just the perfect word for the occasion.

This is truly a “phantastic” word. 😉 It’s an adjective that means characterized by or pertaining to rapid changes in light intensity and color or characterized by or pertaining to a dream-like blurring of real and imaginary elements. I think Salvador Dalí embraced this concept quite masterfully in his paintings.

+

=

Derived from the noun phantasmagoria – a form of theatre that used a special lantern to project scary images such as skeletons, demons, and ghosts on walls – this word probably hasn’t seen the light of day since the 19th century. Nevertheless, it is still quite interesting to see what counted as entertainment nearly two centuries ago. 🙂

Want to read more about other uncommon words? 🙂 See the Interesting Words page.

Sources:
Wiktionary – phantasmagoric
Wikipedia – Phantasmagoria

Fremdscham

It’s been awhile since I’ve made fun of a German word, but I suppose it’s as good a time now as any to dig further into this gold mine. 😛

I think that, for the majority of English speakers, the word schadenfreude has long entered their vocabulary.

This word, from the similar German word Schadenfreude*, means something like the enjoyment derived from observing someone else’s misfortune. Anyone who’s ever seen TV shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos or Tosh.0 will know exactly what this word means.

*Etymology: Schaden (damage or harm) + Freude (joy)

Few will know, however, that Schadenfreude actually also has a polar opposite cousin: Fremdscham**.

Google Translate gives Fremdscham the definition in English as foreign Cham, but don’t you believe it for one second! This word actually means the embarrassment that one feels at watching someone else embarrass themselves. Complicated, right? And, I’ll have to admit, I don’t think I’ve ever run into this situation before (not one that I recall anyway). How did it ever get turned into a word?

**Etymology: Fremd (foreign or unrelated) + Scham (shame)

You may also be interested to know that Fremdscham has further spawned a related verb: fremdschämen*** – to feel ashamed for someone else who has done something embarassing.

***Etymology: Fremd (foreign or unrelated) + schämen (to feel ashamed)

Those who are adventurous with their word compounds, however, should shy away from the combination of Scham (shame) + Entzündung (inflammation). The resulting word will probably not mean what you think it should mean.

Want to read more about other uncommon words? 🙂 See the Interesting Words page.

Sources:
Wiktionary – schadenfreude
Wiktionary – Schadenfreude
Wikipedia – Schadenfreude
Wiktionary – Fremdscham
Wiktionary – fremdschämen
Wiktionary – Schamentzündung

doddard

This is truly one of the oddest words I have ever had the pleasure of accidentally discovering. The discovery actually came from a typo. 😛 I’m no longer sure what I was actually searching for that day, but this word has stayed with me since then.

Doddard is a tree that is missing its top branches through rot or decay.

Strangely specific, isn’t it? What are trees missing its top branches not through rot or decay called? What about trees, through rot or decay, that are missing only its lower branches? Do those even exist?

And now that we’re on this topic… Is there a name for trees that resemble human faces?

Want to read more about other uncommon words? 🙂 See the Interesting Words page.

Sources:
Collins Dictionary