Being the 1st of a miscellany of short posts to mark the 12 days of Christmas.
Wiki reports that ‘many sources’ believe the ‘partridge in a pear tree’ line in the 12 Days of Christmas to be a mistranscription or mis-hearing of the correct lyric, in which the French word for a partridge—‘une perdrix’, pronounced more or less ‘perdree’—followed the English one. Since the lyric makes no other intuitively obvious sense, we shall leave aside the question of why a song with no other bilingual instances would have this one, right at the start. Or, as they say, Let’s go with that. If it’s so, then the song many consider our definitive—and most irritating—secular Christmas song starts off with a mondegreen.
Mondegreens are mis-heard song lyrics, the name coined by Susan Wright in a Harper’s article in 1954 in honour of her own mis-hearing of the lyrics of a Scottish ballad her mother used to warble:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
The actual fourth line is, of course, “And laid him on the green”.
Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle collected, vetted and promulgated mondegreens for many years. Alas, I find no online mondegreens from Jon more recent than 2004, although his humour column is still going strong. But several sites offer mondegreen collections, even an entire set of Christmas music ones. One ESL site suggests using mis-heard lyrics as a teaching aid. Gavin Edwards has collected Christmas mondegreens in a book, Deck the Halls with Buddy Holly.
Many mondegreen write-ups are careful to distinguish them from deliberate wordplay: puns and parodies, for example. As truly serendipitous, unintentional humour, what better way to start the 12 Days of Christmas? From Silent Night’s ‘Round John Virgin’, to Away in a Manger’s ‘The catalog glowing’, to the classic ‘While shepherds washed their socks at night’, enjoy the gift of language humour this Christmas!