Monday, July 21, 2008

Words Worth

IF you think a pescatarian is a member of a Protestant church or that prosecco is thinly sliced Italian ham, you, my friend, are engaging in mondegreen.

Or so we're told in the latest edition of the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary which contains 100 new entries including "pescatarian" (a vegetarian who eats fish), "prosecco" (a sparkling Italian wine) and "mondegreen" which describes words mistaken for other words.

The folks at Merriam Webster have picked the new entries after monitoring their use for several years in a job that must be long on patience and short on stress.

"As soon as we see the word used without explanation or translation or gloss, we consider it a naturalized citizen of the English language," Peter Sokolowski, an editor-at-large for Merriam-Webster, told the Associated Press. "If somebody is using it to convey a specific idea and that idea is successfully conveyed in that word, it's ready to go in the dictionary."

Among the other terms that have recently found their way into print are soju (a Korean vodka distilled from rice), air quotes (a gesture made by raising and flexing the index and middle fingers of both hands, used to call attention to a word or expression), edamame (immature green soybeans), malware (software designed to interfere with a computer's normal functioning) and netroots (grassroots political activists who communicate via the Internet).

We also find racino (a racetrack at which slot machines are available for gamblers), webinar (a live online presentation during which viewers can submit questions and comments) and subprime, a term that unfortunately needs no explanation.

"Pescatarian" recalls a couple I once knew who refused to eat anything with a face. They bickered all through a dinner one evening while trying to decide if scallops fell into that category.

But "mondegreen" is my favorite. I'm surprised someone didn't coin a phrase for misunderstood phrases or lyrics centuries ago.

Instead, it was left to writer Sylvia Wright who coined the term in an essay called "The Death of Lady Mondegreen," which was published in Harper's Magazine. Wright described how, as a young girl, she misheard the final line of the first stanza from the 17th century ballad "The Bonnie Earl O' Murray."

She wrote: "When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy's Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember: Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, Oh, where hae ye been? They hae slain the Earl Amurray, (sic) And Lady Mondegreen.

"The actual fourth line is `And laid him on the green.' The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original," Wright explained.

She cited as an example, "Surely Good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life ("Surely goodness and mercy ..." from Psalm 23).

Perhaps the most famous modern example was the lyric from Credence Clearwater Revival that went "There's a a bad moon on the rise" which was heard by many as "There's a bathroom on the right."

Then there was "`Scuse me while I kiss the sky" from a lyric in the song "Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix, which somehow became "`Scuse me while I kiss this guy."

In an episode of the television sitcom "Friends," Phoebe believes the lyric from Elton John's "Tiny Dancer," "Hold me closer, tiny dancer" is actually "Hold me close, young Tony Danza."

In the CBS sitcom "The Nanny," "The girl with kaleidoscope eyes," from the song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" by the Beatles, is misheard as "The girl with colitis goes by."

A Macy Gray song contains the "My world crumbles when you are not there." It was heard both as "I walk on gum balls when you're not there," and "I wear goggles for you on my rear."

Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that "A social worker ... was dictating a report in which she mentioned that her client was living with her paramour. It came back from the typist that she was living with her power mower."

Carroll also wrote that a TV weatherman somehow became a "meaty urologist."

Who said the study of language was dull.

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