About a year ago, in a column titled, "What was that again?" I noted that people who learn words solely from books are prey to pronouncing them the way they look -- which, unfortunately, is not always the way they sound. Some linguist coined a term for it: “eggcorn,” created when you substitute a word or phrase with words that sound similar.
No branch of the arts has littered the ground with more eggcorns than rock lyrics, as we are reminded amusingly by Kevin J.H. Dettmar, chair of the English department at Pomona College. In a recent blog post at the site of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Dettmar asks
But how can rock really "rage against the machine" if no one’s quite sure what it’s saying? What can it mean that a band that put a great deal of emphasis on its songwriting—pop songs as political theory—actively resisted making that theory more intelligible? Resisted to the degree that even smart and sympathetic critics have sometimes badly misread the work?
One answer involves taking the "mondegreen" seriously.
For better or worse, we seem to be stuck with the term that was coined in 1954 by the writer Sylvia Wright, in a piece in Harper’s Magazine. That the word is about the same age as rock and roll itself is a fitting coincidence. In her mother’s recitation of the ballad "The Bonnie Earl of Murray," Wright as a child misheard the phrase "laid him on the green" as "Lady Mondegreen" and wove a coherent narrative around the mistake, or "mondegreen."
Funner than reading about politics.