Slips of the Ear ― Homonyms, Oronyms, Homographs and Mondegreens

Zoë Sharp

I like unintentional humour, and a good deal of amusement can be had from slips of the ear ― words misheard, misinterpreted or simply misunderstood. I’d no idea, though, until I started looking into the subject, how many different words there were to describe this phenomenon, so I thought I’d share some trivia with you.

First up is a Homonym, which is when two or more words have the same sound or spelling, but differ in meaning, from the Greek ‘same name’.

A nice example comes from ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND:

“Mine is a long and sad tale!” said the Mouse, turning to Alice, and sighing.

“It is a long tail, certainly,”’ said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse’s tail; “but why do you call it sad?”

Homonyms are closely related to Homographs and Homophones.

A Homograph is one word that is spelled exactly the same as another, but which not only has a different meaning, but often a different derivation as well. A Homograph can also be a Hetronym, from the Greek ‘other named’. A good example is the word ‘sewer’, meaning both a place for sewage, and someone who sews. The derivation of the former is from the Latin, meaning related to water, but the derivation of the latter is from the Sanskrit meaning thread or string.

Occasionally, Homographs are spelled identically, but pronounced differently according to the meaning, hence:

“When I tear my fingernail, I shed a tear.”

Whereas Homophones are two words that are pronounced the same but have different meanings. Such as:

“I shed a tear as I watched him climb onto the top tier of the podium.”

Although, come to think of it, both Homographs and Homophones could fall into the overall category of Homonyms.

Confused? Stick around.

Then we get to Oronyms, which is apparently a word invented by Gyles Brandreth, and quite frankly I wouldn’t put it past him. An Oronym is a sequence of words that sound the same as another, with endless comic possibilities. The brain hears speech not as individual words but as an overall flow which it has to try to interpret, and what with accents and mispronunciation and slang, it’s hardly surprising that occasionally we get it wrong.

“The stuffy nose can lead to problems.”

“The stuff he knows can lead to problems.”

Actually, by far the best example I can give of Oronyms at work is the Four Candles sketch by the Two Ronnies.

Many words are easily confused, and among the most common are:

Accept – to receive or take in

Except – other than

Lead – metal

Led – past tense of to lead someone or something in a given direction

Rein – means of controlling a horse

Reign – the rule of a monarch

Principal – the head of a school, person being protected by a bodyguard

Principle – a rule or guideline

Androgynous – having both male and female characteristics

Androgenous – having only male offspring

When it comes to song lyrics, the human ear has even more fun and misinterpreting words. The mishearing of words in a song is so common that American writer Sylvia Wright coined a term for it taken directly from her own experiences when as a child she misheard the words of the ballad ‘The Bonny Earl O’Moray’:

“Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands

Oh, where hae ye been?

They hae slain the Earl O’Moray

And Lady Mondegreen”

The last line should actually have been ‘And laid him on the green’ but for years Ms Wright believed that the unknown Lady Mondegreen had met a similar fate as the Earl O’Moray and came up with the name Mondegreen to describe it.

Since then, of course, the practice has been rife, with one of my favourites being the Kenny Rogers song, ‘You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille’. For years I heard this as:

“You picked a fine time to leave me, loose heel.

Four hundred children and a croc in the fields”

Instead of the far more mundane:

“You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille

Four hungry children and a crop in the fields”

Personally, I think I prefer the first version.

The Jimi Hendrix song, ‘Purple Haze’ contains the line:

“Excuse me while I kiss the sky”

Which was so often misheard as:

“Excuse me while I kiss this guy”

that he actually sang the alternative version in concert.

I think my latest favourite has to be the modified lyrics to the new Bond theme, ‘Skyfall’. Instead of:

“Let the sky fall, when it crumbles

We will stand tall

And face it all together”

Let’s have a rousing chorus of:

“Make a trifle, make a crumble

Build my cake tall

And we’ll eat it all together”

All it needs is cake. Now, doesn’t that make you feel better? So, ‘Rati, what are you favourite examples of any of the above? Let’s hear ’em!

No Word of the Week this week. I think you’ve had quite enough.

24 thoughts on “Slips of the Ear ― Homonyms, Oronyms, Homographs and Mondegreens

  1. Sarah W

    Fun post, Zoë!

    I think my favorite oronym is the vision-impaired teddy I heard about in church: Gladly, the Cross-eyed bear.

    There's also a poem someone sent me once:

    When you kiss your honey
    While your nose is runny
    You may think that it's funny–
    But it's snot.

  2. Lesley

    My favourite misheard song lyric is the line from Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" that actually goes "Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me." I was delighted to discover I wasn't the only person who heard "Beelzebub has a devil in a sideboard" 😀

  3. Graham Smith

    All from Aiplane II. Which is littered with wordplay. Also the Marx brothers used plays on words a lot in their films.

    Simon: Gentlemen, I'd like you to meet your captain, Captain Oveur.
    Clarence Oveur: Gentlemen, welcome aboard.
    Simon: Captain, your navigator, Mr. Unger, and your first officer, Mr. Dunn.
    Clarence Oveur: Unger.
    Unger: Oveur.
    Dunn: Oveur.
    Clarence Oveur: Dunn. Gentlemen, let's get to work.
    Simon: Unger, didn't you serve under Oveur in the Air Force?
    Unger: Not directly. Technically, Dunn was under Oveur and I was under Dunn.
    Dunn: Yep.
    Simon: So, Dunn, you were under Oveur and over Unger.
    Unger: Yep.
    Clarence Oveur: That's right. Dunn was over Unger and I was over Dunn.
    Unger: So, you see, both Dunn and I were under Oveur, even though I was under Dunn.
    Clarence Oveur: Dunn was over Unger, and I was over Dunn.

    Witness: Striker was the squadron leader. He brought us in real low. But he couldn't handle it.
    Prosecutor: Buddy couldn't handle it? Was Buddy one of your crew?
    Witness: Right. Buddy was the bombardier. But it was Striker who couldn't handle it, and he went to pieces.
    Prosecutor: *Andy* went to pieces?
    Witness: No. Andy was the navigator. He was all right. Buddy went to pieces. It was awful how he came unglued.
    Prosecutor: *Howie* came unglued?
    Witness: Oh, no. Howie was a rock, the best tailgunner in the outfit. Buddy came unglued.
    Prosecutor: And he bailed out?
    Witness: No. Andy hung tough. Buddy bailed out. How he survived, it was a miracle.
    Prosecutor: Then Howie survived?
    Witness: No, 'fraid not. We lost Howie the next day.

    Prosecutor: Over Macho Grande?
    Witness: No. I don't think I'll ever get over Macho Grande.

    Prosecutor: Dr. Stone, would you give the court your impression of Mr. Striker?
    Dr. Stone: I'm sorry, I don't do impressions… my training is in psychiatry.

  4. Jake Nantz

    I have so much trouble with my students and homophones. They either haven't been taught or, much more likely, never cared to differentiate between, words like their, there, and they're, or your and you're. But then everyone sees those sometimes. What really drives me nuts are these, some of which aren't even true homophones, they've just mispronounced them right into the wrong spelling as well:

    know and no
    to, too, and two
    lose and loose
    bear and bare
    our and are
    thrown and throne

    I mean it. Drives me freakin' nuts. These are seniors in high school, about to graduate, and still think you can sit on a thrown.

  5. Selena

    My mom loved the rap song "Whoop! There It Is!". We loved that she sang "Whoop! Mayonnaise!". In her defense, she really is hard of hearing.

    She also misheard CCR's "Bad Moon on the Rise". Yes, she heard "There's a bathroom on the right".

  6. Susan D

    As a couple of Canucks travelling in NZ a few years ago, we were at a tourist office (and may I say NZ's tourist offices are absolutely top notch) we bought tickets for the ferry from the North Island to South Island (aka The Mainland).

    The woman then gave us a brochure telling us everything we'd need to know: "…luggage rules, travelling with pets, chicken procedures." Knowing how strict the Kiwis are about transporting food and animals, my partner and I weren't entirely surprised there were chicken procedures.

    But we did manage to chick in appropriately when we got to the ferry.

  7. lil Gluckstern

    Our ears aren't always exact then. Love the skit, and I still think English is a tough language.

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah

    LOL. Love both those. The cross-eyed bear is a lovely one.

    Reminds me of the joke about the termite who walks into a bar and asks, “Is the bar tender here?”

  9. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Lesley

    I shall never look at sideboards in the same light again.

    In a similar vein, I like “The ants are my friends” instead of “The answer my friend” in Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’

  10. Zoë Sharp

    LOL Graham

    I LOVED that movie – and all the Police Squad series, particularly for the phrase, “He was run out of town like a common pygmy.” Never understood it, mind you …

    Oh, and you have WAY too much time on your hands, as well as free access to IMDB, my friend 🙂

  11. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Jake

    ‘Lose’ and ‘loose’ seem to be two that get mixed up a lot.

    And I confess for ages I thought the correct phrase was “He’s got another thing coming” instead of “He’s got another think coming.” It still doesn’t look right even when it is.

    Many common mispronunciations and misspellings have found their way into everyday language. Apparently ‘an apron’ used to be ‘a napron’, and ‘a nickname’ comes from ‘an eke name’ – and additional name.

    Probably best not to get into that, though … 🙂

  12. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Mary

    That’s a great one! Colitis is a strange subject for a song, as is “I’ll never leave your pizza burning,” (“I’ll never be your beast of burden”) from ‘Miss You’ by the Rolling Stones.

  13. Zoë Sharp

    LOL, Susan D

    You can understand where my “She’s got a chicken to ride” image came from. I now have visions of lots of people trying to board a ferry with a chicken under their arm. Very Gary Larson’s The Far Side …

  14. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alex

    Swapping vowels around just isn’t fair, is it? Reminds me of the joke: “My South African friend said he bought me a Kindle. I was over the moon until he told me he’d also bought me the Barbie to go with it.”

  15. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Selena

    You mum is not alone, as “There’s a bathroom on the right” is listed in the common mishearing of song lyrics. As, apparently, is “Pretty woman, won’t you lick my leg” instead of “Pretty woman, won’t you look my way” from Roy Orbison.

    And I always wondered why Neil Diamond would write a song about the Reverend Bluejeans …

  16. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I didn't read this until Friday morning – and what a laugh I had! How do you know these things? What literary planet did you come from, Zoe? How the hell do I make those little dots appear above the "e" in your name????

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen

    I have a mind for trivia – or something like that …

    And if you have a PC, you put the number lock on the numeric keypad, hold down ALT and type 137 on the numeric keypad, and ë will appear.

    If you have a Mac, though, you're on your own 🙂

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