Friday, October 18, 2013

The Embarrassment of a Mondegreen or Two

 I love words. I'm an author. Words are my tools, the hammers when I need to pound something in, the chisels when I need to refine. Sometimes my words bounce back and bonk me in the head and make me wonder what I was thinking. For instance, the mondegreen.

I’ve said more than a few mondegreens in my lifetime, I just never knew there was a name for this phenomena. But there is.


A mondegreen is the misinterpretation of oral words, replacing the original words with a mistaken version, the “unintentional incorrect repeating of similar sounding words.” This word, mondegreen, is an example of its own definition, going back several hundred years. Singers often misunderstood words in a particular seventeenth century ballad

They hath slain the Earl O’Moray,
And laid him on the green

And sang instead

They hath slain the Earl O’Moray,
And Lady Monedgreen.

When John Fogerty in 1969 penned lyrics to Bad Moon Rising, he created a huge and widely acknowledged ultimate mondegreen in his one phrase, “There’s a bad moon on the rise.”

 Okay, guilty here. I always sang, until wikipedia set me straight, “There’s a bathroom on the right.”

No telling what other mondegreens I’ve committed in my lifetime, unaware until someone coughs politely, draws me aside and reveals the truth. That's what friends are for, by the way.

Such a thing happened this week and I was completely dumfounded. Fortunately, I wasn’t with a group. ‘Twas just me and my computer and a video of the subject of my latest project.

There he was being interviewed back in the 1990’s, talking old-time living and real-life learning. One of his stories perked my ears. Seems that back during the Great Depression, he and his father were walking along a road in the mountains of western North Carolina when they saw a huge cloud of smoke in the distance. As large as it was, they were sure it was a house fire, so they rushed to help. When they arrived at the source of the fire, turns out it was a tarkill, with a man piling green, fresh-cut pine branches and pine needles on a fire he had set on an old piece of tin.

“Can’t get the fire too hot,” he explained. “It’ll burn the wood.”

“Isn’t that what a fire is for?”

“Not this time. I’m killing the tar.”

The heat would draw the sap from the logs making it ooze downhill on the metal sheet. At the end of the tin, he had set a bucket to catch the slow motion drip of pine tar from the logs he had set afire. As the flames grew too high, he would cut nearby pines to smother the fire, creating an unbelievable amount of smoke, and demonstrating the base phrase known to us around here in the Carolinas, “Smoking like a tarkill.”

Oh, drats. A Mondegreen!

A few generations removed from that tarkill scene, the expression I’ve always heard is “Smoking like a Tarheel.” In my child-like brain  when I first heard that expression, I had pictured a person from North Carolina sitting out behind the barn sneaking a puff or two, or twenty-two, or two hundred even, as in “smoking like a Tarheel.”

I will probably never use that phrase. It's old. Its meaning and use has gone the way of the mule drawn tobacco sleds I once followed behind. But it made me aware of one thing. Once they are spoken (and written), words belong to the listener as much as to the speaker. Lessons learned about that.

Catch of the day,


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