A New Year post from Alan Mason

The term “mondegrene” is a very useful word to describe a misheard or misunderstood song lyric or piece of spoken language. We have to thank the American writer, Sylvia Wright for inventing the word, exactly 60 years ago. She outlined the idea in an essay, “The Death of Lady Mondegrene”, published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1954.

Wright explains that as a young girl she heard the short, but rather grim, Scottish ballad, “The Bonny Earl o’ Moray”. It is often sung in a rather dense Scottish border dialect, but for simplicity I quote it first in Standard English. This is what Sylvia Wright thought she heard:

“You Highlands and you Lowlands,

O where have you been?

They have slain the Earl o’ Moray,

And Lady Mondegrene.”

In trying to discover more about the Earl of Moray, (pronounced murry) and the unfortunate Lady, Wright read a printed version of the ballad and realised that there was no Lady, only one male corpse (2). Here are the two last lines in Standard English.

“They have slain the Earl o’ Moray,

And laid him on the green.”

The ballad refers to a real Scottish historical incident in 1592. Interested readers should refer to two wikipedia articles, “The Bonny Earl o’ Moray”, and “James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray” for details of the ballad and the historical background. Wright’s childlike confusion is more readily understood if we quote the ballad in its Lalland (Lowland) Scots dialect version.

“Ye Hielands and ye Lallands,

O whaur hae ye been?

They ha’ slain the Earl o’ Moray,

And laid him on the green.”

I offer a few more mondegrenes for the New Year.


As a schoolchild, I was fascinated by the short titles of hymns and carols in our school hymnbooks, particularly if they were in a foreign tongue. There was “Wir pflügen” for “We plough the fields and scatter,” and “Nun danket”, “Now thank we all our God”. I had not realised that the two German words were the first two words of the first line in English.

There was also “Once in Royal”. I thought that “Royal” was a town. I heard “Once in Royal, David’s city, stood a lowly cattle shed.” The correct punctuation gives, “Once in royal David’s city, stood etc”


A small boy was travelling west with his family in the car. His father explained to the children about the places they travelled through. “We finally got to the Prairies, look how flat it is.” The little boy looked excitedly out of the windows. “Daddy, where are all the tortoises? His father was puzzled, asking his son to explain what he meant. “You know, Daddy, in Church when they say, ‘And now the prairie tortoise,”. (And now the prayer He taught us)


Children are always being exposed to the puzzling culture of the decades before they were born. My school French textbooks, trendy in their day, mentioned people I had never heard of. In tennis, Jean Borotra, and Suzanne Lenglen and Nuovolari in motor racing. These people were stars of the 1920s and no longer in the news when I was using these books in the 1950s. On the radio, the Light Programme still broadcast popular music of the 1930s. One piece I recall was, “She’s My Lovely”, a rather gentle and wistful love-song. I heard:

“She’s my lovely,

My Venus, and Don Jua Gresa,

She’s my lovely,

Serene as any Mona Lisa”.

I was puzzled as to how this distinguished Spaniard, Don Jua Gresa, fitted into the song. Years later I realised that the first two lines should be:

“She’s my lovely,

My Venus, and don’t you agree, sir?


The folk-song revival began in the 1950s and songs were borrowed from many sources including what were called, “Negro spirituals” from the southern USA. These songs were broadcast on the radio and sung in pubs, particularly if they had a simple chorus, when everyone could join in. One of these, whose correct title I never knew, began like this:

“Michael roved the border shore, alleluia,

Sister helped to trim the sails, allelu oo ya”.

I was mildly curious about where this “border shore” was, and what Michael was doing in roving it. Perhaps it was a river between two States. It was much later I realised that the American accents had confused me. It should be:

“Michael rowed the boat ashore, alleluia,

Sister helped to trim the sails, allelu oo ya”.

It now made more sense, but where was he rowing?


This was a jolly, rumbustious song, popular in the early 60s. I heard:

“Way up North,

Way up North,

North to Alaska,

Go north to Russia Zone.”

It puzzled me. I knew the USA had once bought Alaska from the Russians. The song was about the Klondike Gold Rush in the early 20 C, but where was this “Russia Zone?” Was it a nickname for land which was originally Russian? No it was a “mondegrene”. It should be:

“North to Alaska,

Go north, the Rush is on.”

Deskarati readers are warmly invited to supply us with their own “mondegrenes” for our delectation.


Illustrations 1 and 3 are details from a facsimile edition of a 15 C Book of Hours, a kind of expensive prayer-book for wealthy people. It gave them something to look at if the sermon was too long. It is called, “Les Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry” – The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry. The Province of Berry was in central France. The text was by Edmond Pognon, translated by David Macrae, and published by Liber in 1979.

1. Lady Mondegrene? (Riche Heures)

2. The Not-so Bonny Earl o’ Moray in Death (“The Lion in the North” by John Prebble, Penguin, 1971)

3. Once in Royal (Riche Heures)

4. Don Jua Gresa? (Detail from “The Court Jester, ‘Don Juan de Austria’ by Velazquez, “Velazquez” by Xavier de Salas, Phaidon, 1976)

5. The Yukon (Google images)

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2 Responses to MONDEGRENES FOR 2014

  1. Stephen Herbert says:

    In the 50s there was a tv ad jingle here in Britain: “Wonder Greeunder? Take Aspro”. I puzzled as to what wonder greeunder was. It was years later that I worked out that the words were actually “One degree under”.

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