Phonetics, the short course

POSTED BY: Louise Hawes

During a recent visit with my family, I watched my two-year old granddaughter take a bath in her new favorite phrase: whoopsie daisy. If she dropped something, she said it, and saying it made her eyes larger than ever, her mouth smile wide around those last lazy syllables. If she fell, or stood up, or found something that had been lost: whoopsie daisy. If she saw something that looked lopsided or silly: whoopsie daisy. The joy, the delicious relish with which she pulled out this all-purpose word condiment, was contagious. Soon were all using it, for everything. We named things Whoopsie Daisy. We sang Whoopsie Daisy. We used it as encouragement, in sympathy, to express appreciation. It sounds good everywhere, always. It’s just plain fun to say.

Whoopsie Daisy (originally whoops-a-daisy) has gotten me thinking. About how often I choose a word based on its aural/poetic satisfaction, other things being equal. If I’ve got a choice, for example, between barbarous and cruel, give me barbarous every time! And felonious?  Hmmmm. Luscious on the tongue, and much more satisfying than illegal. Decrepitude and dilapidation are two more juicy sounds that sing songs about less than savory concepts.

And speaking of how the sound of words can often be more attractive than their meaning, I guess I should mention “Silent Night.” When I was my granddaughter’s age and listened to folks singing the line, “Sleep in Heavenly peace,” I heard, “Sleep in Heaven, Leapies.” I assumed Leapies were something like cherubs, and that they ran around a lot, played hard, and their parents had to be forceful about putting them to bed.


The word for this sort of mishearing is Mondegreen, a lovely word all by itself. It was coined by an American writer, Sylvia Wright, who misheard a line of a ballad: While the balladeer sang, “They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray, and laid him on the green;” Wright heard “They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray and Lady Mondegreen.” Whoopsie Daisy! One earl and one lady down. More grizzly, sure. But a lot more fun to say!

Mondegreen’s of your own to share?


by | June 28, 2013 · 2:30 pm

19 responses to “Phonetics, the short course

  1. This is great, Louise. Hmmm… Mondegreens, I’m sure I have some. I’ll have to think about that.

    • louisehawes

      You could ask your children, too, Sheryl. The major Mondegreens live in our hearts long after we’ve grown up — I still prefer rambunctious leapies to heavenly peace 🙂

    • Charlene Lutes

      I agree. I remember that there were a couple that I knew about over the years that only children could create. Those Christmas songs seemed to be where most mondegreens occurred. You know, those angels, kings and things. I remember when my daughter saw a person of color for the first time. The man had a prominent feature, and she said innocently, “Mom, look at the man with the chocolate nose.”

  2. Louise, I adore you. It’s so true, what you say about the feel of words in your mouth. Today I typed the word “discombobulated” in an email message and had to stop & say it out loud. “Discombobulated” – it makes the sound water makes flowing across stones in a creek bed. RE: Mondegreens: I used to think the line in the song “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight” (from the musical “Gigi”) said “On to your Waterloo whispers my heart…pray I’ll be Wellington, not blown apart.” Obviously, it should have been “Bonaparte,” but that’s not what I heard. It’s not quite a Mondegreen (no new word invented.) Still, it’s an example of how our ears play tricks on us, and how our minds try to make sense of nonsense (and vice versa)…which might be what storytelling is all about, after all.

    • louisehawes

      “Discombobulated.” I love imagining my favorite two-year old trying to get her mouth around that one, Julie! And I think your Mondegreen version of “Say a Prayer” updates and universalizes the song! Unlike one little boy’s version of the Pledge of Allegiance, in which he affirmed his loyalty to the flag and “to the Republic of Richard Stands.” He wondered for years who that powerful Richard Stands guy was!

  3. nina (N.A.) Nelson

    Not really a Mondegreen, (I know my song lyrics are full of Mondegreens but I’m choosing to remain blissfully oblivious for now), but when my daughter was five or six and just learning to read, she said to me, “Mom, what’s a hug yard sale?” We were in the car and when I turned to look at her, she was pointing to a sign that said, HUGE YARD SALE. I laughed my head off and then did what any good writer would do…I wrote a picture book about it.

    • louisehawes

      I’d much rather patronize a hug sale than a huge one, Nina! In fact, any company that promises me “hug discounts” or “hug bargains?” I’m so there. And I want to read that picture book, too!

  4. Carol

    I don’t have a favorite word, but my son does: galore. As for mondegreens, there are several to be found in literature. In A Monk Swimming, by Malachy McCourt, the author tells about hearing the phrase “blessed are thou amongst women” and thinking “amongst women” was “a monk swimming.” Catcher in the Rye is, for Holden Caulfield, his reason for existence: he wants to catch the children who are playing in a field of rye near a cliff as they fall off. It is heartbreaking to read that he finds out that the poem says “meet a body” not “catch a body.”
    I adore word games. Once a week a friend and I play Boggle and a variation of Scrabble, which involves having all the tiles face down on the table, selecting 15 and turning them over. The objective of the game is to make a crossword grid of all the letters as fast as possible and saying “Stop!” when you’ve used all your letters. The other player has to stop playing and then both count up the points of the letters in the vertical and horizontal words. The loser deducts the points of the letters she hasn’t used. If you have misspelled a word and called “Stop!” you have to deduct 25 points from your score. If your opponent misspells a word, she has to remove the offending tiles. We think a friend’s mother invented the game and called it “Squabble.” We make the letter Q a QU so the player that gets it won’t be at a disadvantage if she doesn’t have a U.
    While playing our word games, we have to check the dictionary to see if iffy words exist. I love looking through the dictionary because the guide words in the header sometimes make me chuckle by being just great words. I decided to leaf through the dictionary and select 5 header words that made me smile and write a little story about them. As a former English and ESL teacher, I think this would be a good exercise for a composition class. What follows is words I liked in the Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary’s headers: robber baron, bedraggled, martini, lie detector and dump incorporated into a lame attempt of a story:
    Larry and the Tramp
    Larry, a petrochemical robber baron sits on the edge of his hotel room bed sipping a martini mixed from the mini bar, waiting for room service to come. The hot water from the shower in the bathroom hisses. An hour earlier, Larry found Ivana, a tall, slim blond with filthy, bedraggled hair, savaging the contents of a garbage bin. He stood watching her at work for 10 minutes before she turned and noticed him. “Lose something?” he asked her.
    “Nope. Just looking for something to eat before the garbage truck comes and carts everything off to the dump,” she replied.
    “Come to my hotel room for a decent meal?” he’d asked.
    “No, thanks. I’m no hooker.”
    “Just for some company, Larry told her. “I bought out seven failing companies today and I’m beat. I just want to get back to my room, unwind, have some super and go to bed. Join me for supper?”
    “If I can take a bath first.”
    Outside the Ritz, Ivana hesitated. “They’ll never let me in here,” she said. Larry put his arm around her shoulder, pressed her against his body and hurried her onto an elevator.
    In the room Larry ordered supper and Ivana took her shower. When she stepped out of the bathroom, Larry could see she was lovely. Her skin glowed, her eyes shone and her hair shimmered. “How did a beautiful girl like you end up living off food from a dumpster? he asked.
    “I failed a lie detector test I should have passed, she replied. “And how can you afford to stay in a place like this? she countered.
    “I passed a lie detector test I should have failed.”

    • louisehawes

      Salutations, fellow word bather! Wow, Carol, I adore the word game you’ve devised, and that story is clever and funny — a lure for the rest of us. As you say,such concoctions make a great exercise for young comp students, too. Thanks for sharing!

  5. What a great post, Louise. I’d never heard the term Mondegreen before.

    One of my favorite moments in Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books is when Ramona mishears the lyrics to THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER. She thinks she’s learned word for a new kind of light fixture: the “dawnzer,” that makes a “lee light.” When she tells her sister later in the book to “turn on the dawnzer,” and her family laughs, the emotion on the page is so raw. Wonderful stuff.

    • It’s true, Erin. It’s a strange vulnerable position children occupy when adults around them take language for granted. Betrayal, shock, hurt — all those come into play when a mondegreen unravels, huh?

  6. Kathy Quimby

    Mondegreens are such fun. Most of mine occurred around pop song lyrics that I no longer remember, but my sister coined the memorable, “I just as might as” when she was three or four. It still comes to mind sometimes, when I’m feeling wishy-washy about doing something.

  7. My father used to love telling us about how he had to sing “God Save the King” when he was a child going to school in pre-independence India in the early 1930’s. When they came to the “send him victorious” line, he’d say, a roomful of enthusiastic children would belt out “Send him Victoria,” convinced it was the Empress being thus honored. Along similar lines, my son used to refer to “sandals” as “scandals.” As in “I’m going to put on my scandals.” All of which makes me think, isn’t language acquisition an amazing feat of decoding? How on earth do any of us pull it off?

  8. RE: Kids and Words
    Lately, my grandson has been claiming the phrase, “give it a shot,” as in “I don’ t know how, but I’ll give it a shot.” Every chance that presents itself, the phrase is used! And not too long ago, as we were driving from the coast back to Portland, Oregon, he looked into sunlight coming through the branches of trees on the side of the road and asked if what he was seeing was “dappled light.” I just about swooned. He had remembered something I told him much earlier about the word “dappled” from a Hopkins poem, “Glory be to God for dappled things….” So language goes into kids and waits for an opportunity to come out. Is there anything that matches the pleasure of listening to them use it?
    RE:Mondegreens- I remember thinking that “Parson Brown” (from the Christmas carol “Winter Wionderland”…In the meadow we will build a snowman, and pretend that he is Parson Brown…”) was a new crayon color I had never heard of – kind of like “Burnt Sienna” which was a color in the glorious 64-crayon box. It seemed so strange to build a brown snowman.

    • Kathy Quimby

      Julie, I am so glad you posted about Parson Brown, because I remember thinking the same thing. I think I only figured it out when the church we went to changed ministers and the new one decided to live in the parsonage.

      Your grandson asking about dappled light is marvelous.

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