Do you know your misles from your mondegreens?

“The greater the ambiguity, the greater the pleasure.” ― Milan Kundera

Language has the power to both delight and confuse, and there are names for some of our most common confusions. Here are a few linguistic gaffes you will surely recognize, even if you’ve never heard their names.

A crash blossom is a headline that leaves us scratching our heads because the meaning is ambiguous. They are said to be named for this headline: “Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms.” (Hint: read blossoms as a verb, not a noun.) Crash blossoms may also feature a pileup of so many ambiguous parts of speech it’s difficult to find the main noun and verb: “Bright sparks weather gala night power cut to party on.” Headlines that merely feature puns or humorous typos are not crash blossoms; crash blossoms feature ambiguity, sometimes humorous—like the classic “Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim.”

The Cupertino effect happens when a spell checker runs amuck. The story is that early versions of Microsoft Word automatically corrected the word cooperation to Cupertino (Cupertino, California, is the headquarters of Apple, Inc.), resulting in, for instance, a NATO report that referred to the “Organization for Security and Cupertino in Europe.”

Eggcorns (a mispronunciation of acorns) are malapropisms that sometimes make some kind of sense. Is it “for all intents and purposes” or “for all intensive purposes”? “To the manner born” or “To the manor born”? “With bated breath” or “with baited breath”? With an eggcorn, a person can often make a logical argument for one version or the other. The Eggcorn Database has more examples.

Garden path sentences start you in one direction and then cause you to stumble and change directions: The vacation spot that I remember was full of families and fun activities turned out to be full in January.

Misles: Most of us can remember a misle from our childhood, usually a word we read but never heard spoken aloud. The linguist who coined the term misle named it for the mispronunciation of the word misled as “MISS-əld.”

Mondegreens are like misles, only having to do with song lyrics. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary assigns the origin of the term to the mishearing of “laid him on the green” in an old Scottish ballad as “Lady Mondegreen.” Other famous mondegreens include “Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear” and “Bringing in the Sheets,” both from Christian hymns.

Mountweazel: The original mountweazel appeared in the form of an entry for Lillian Virginia Mountweazel in The New Columbia Encyclopedia in 1975. The New Yorker explains:

If Mountweazel is not a household name . . . that is because she never existed. “It was an old tradition in encyclopedias to put in a fake entry to protect your copyright,” Richard Steins, who was one of the volume’s editors, said the other day. “If someone copied Lillian, then we’d know they’d stolen from us.”

Mountweazels are also found on maps in the form of fake street or town names.

Muphry’s [sic] Law is what you are following when you incorrectly correct someone else’s style or grammar. The law as stated by John Bangsund in 1992: “If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.”

Snowclones: “X is the new Y,” “This is your brain on X”: Such clichés were named snowclones by linguist Geoffrey Pullum when he noticed the proliferation of variations on the claim that “Eskimos have X words for snow.” Just for fun, explore the Snowclone Database (“Snowclones are the new eggcorns”).

Spoonerism: Merriam-Webster.com defines a spoonerism as “a transposition of usually initial sounds of two or more words (as in tons of soil for sons of toil).”

Comments are open—feel free to post your own examples!

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Photo: Yogesh Mhatre

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5 thoughts on “Do you know your misles from your mondegreens?

  1. A favorite mondegreen from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”: ‘Scuse me, while I kiss this guy (‘Scuse me, while I kiss the sky)

    • Thanks, GreenandMusty! You are right: a mispronunciation can be whatever the pronouncer prefers. And since you pointed it out, we changed MIZZ to MISS in our pronunciation.

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