top of page

/paula marafino bernett

Lady Mondegreen Rises From the One Who Laid Upon the Green

American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in 1954; as a girl she had misheard the lyric “… and laid him on the green” in a Scottish ballad as, “… and Lady Mondegreen.”

Every mishearing is a novel concoction. The hundredth mishearing is as fresh and as surprising as the first. — Oliver Sacks, Mishearings, NYT June 7, 2015

How long did Lady Mondegreen bide her time in Sylvia Wright’s mind before she sprang into being? Even the slimmest tether to what lies in the sub-rosa regions of our neurology can reel in an element of distortion; received by the ear, this may be the brain’s way of wrangling itself closer to an alternate, perhaps more engaging reality.

Every mishearing, unmoored from its original referent in the transmission from the word spoken to the word heard, is thus freed to choose among a collection of alternative meanings.

Some of these vaporize the moment they take up residence in the hearing brain; received by the mind as anomalous and misfit, they disintegrate to be reconstituted on another occasion or mishearing. Others, revelatory and beautifully accompanied by sonic dovetailing, offer touchstones for contemplation. Oliver Sacks writes:

A few weeks ago, when I heard my assistant Kate say to me, “I am going to choir practice,” I was surprised. I have never, in the 30 years we have worked together, heard her express the slightest interest in singing. But I thought, who knows? Perhaps this is a part of herself she has kept quiet about; perhaps it is a new interest; perhaps her son is in a choir; perhaps …. It was only on her return that I found she had been to the chiropractor.A few days later, Kate jokingly said, “I’m off to choir practice.” Again I was baffled: Firecrackers?Why was she talking about firecrackers?

The game of telephone relies on a cascade of mishearings, as a word or phrase is whispered into the ear of one, then another player. Each misheard word is a universe of meaning unto itself. For Sacks, chiropractor becomes choir practice becomes firecrackers. My own inner narrator spins this story: the chiropractor, tired of weeks of choir practice, decided to light firecrackers in the graveyard adjacent to the church. Waking the dead, surely what firecrackers do when lit in a graveyard, animates my deepest wish that after death, life somehow goes on.

There are times I welcome another’s mishearing of what I said; while it may reveal something about the mishearer, it also reflects something about me I could not otherwise know. Sub-textually what happens in that communication extends a tendril of intimate connection; I receive this as a sudden quiet rush of pleasure.

I often mishear, or misthink, my own internal conversations; I regard these mishearings/misthinkings as possible keys to locked doors in my mind beyond which I hope to discover a trove of enlightenments; these I know have the power to dispel, in an abracadabra way, one lurking shadow at a time.

In this way, word-by-word, language becomes multi-dimensional; it acquires compass readings that track an expanding circle of emotional and mental geography. How I speak and misspeak, how I hear and mishear, reflects in me a hunger for fellowship, a wavering lasso I can settle over the heads of those I would draw near.

I assign such autonomically self-generated mishearings to the category of deliberations; here is an array of tricky investigative tools to pick locks, jimmy windows, and skillfully barter my brain into neurological rooms to which it is not otherwise granted access.

Forced to relinquish the need to make sense, the mind, unweighted from the ballast of definition, freed from the lock on meaning, and tossed into the more rarefied air of unknowing, that giddy place, happily dances along the path of mishearings, flings open its doors and welcomes in the ragtag throngs.

Paula Marafino Bernett‘s poetry has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Clackamas Literary Review, The Louisville Review, Margie, Nimrod International Journal, Rattle, Salamander, Tar River Poetry, and Whiskey Island, among others. Her lyric essays have appeared in Fourth Genre and Eastern Iowa Review.

7 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


  • Black Facebook Icon
  • Black Twitter Icon
  • Black Instagram Icon
bottom of page