Olive, the Other Reindeer

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!

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12 Responses to Olive, the Other Reindeer

  1. John Benn tells me he and his other little naughty choirboys (in England) had dozens of these mondegreens. Some had been passed down, but many were their (and his) concoctions. I’m sure the choirmaster heard them, and if not, expected the boys were doing it, as he’d done it himself. All part and parcel of the rich tradition that is heavenly choir singing by little red-lipped cherubs in white robes, butter couldn’t melt in their mouths… and with toads squirming in their deep pockets…

    It is Christmas morning & John is being a little engineer and trying to get his remote control helicopter working. So far, no lift-off. I am maintaining radio silence, in another room.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – So wise – the radio silence, I mean. Who knows? He might yet have toads in a deep pocket. Merry Christmas to you both.

      • He never did get the uControl helicopter to lift off, so I wrote a sad email to the Company. We shall see if they’ll honour my purchase. If not, indeed, what is happening to the world, when we cannot trust corporations? 😀

        A sad day in other ways as it was my first Christmas without my mother. No Christmas parcel arrived loaded with funny and thoughtful and generous gifts, and always with the traditional new toothbrush — for 66 years she gave me a new one. I wish I had kept them all — it would have been a mini museum of tooth care over the ages. Of such things is melancholy made.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – Yes, that year of ‘firsts’ is difficult in many ways. I am sorry for your loss and glad you have your memories.

  2. Mary says:

    Thank you for this chuckle, and the promise of more! Merry Christmas to you – you just made mine merrier!


    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Mary – As a teenager, I read Regency romances by Georgette Heyer and remember one in which the idea was floated that a shared sense of humour was a better link between people (indicating a shared world view) than sympathy in affliction (which might come from someone you positively disliked!). As I get older and have more afflictions, I value the sympathy more than I did back then – but for me the shared ‘joke’ is still the shortest distance between two minds, whether those minds are roughly equivalent in age, or separated by 50+ years. Merry Christmas to you.

  3. Sid says:

    Well done and Happy New Year.


  4. MC says:

    One of the funniest mondegreens I remember from an article I read many years ago is in reference to The Beatles Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds: “..the girl with kaleidoscope eyes…” became “the girl with colitis goes by…”

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      MC – What’s odd about so many of these is that they persist even though they make so little lyrical sense (or, indeed, none at all). I wonder how much of our mental lives is like that – we just stop expecting things to make sense.

      • My dear sister is getting hard of hearing but hears the most wonderful mondegreens and repeats them to me, just to make sure I didn’t say it. We do laugh.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – That’s like the old joke – Do you want to dance? Did you just say I look fat in these pants? – better to ask! As someone who is hearing challenged, I must say I don’t usually have much fun with it. I must look for new opportunities….

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