What Our Miscommunications Tell Us

Spoken Word

A moment’s mishearing made the national news last week—prompted by, of all things, the announcement of National Book Award finalists. The murmurs began when six novels, rather than the usual five, were announced for the Young People’s category. It turned out that there had been a “miscommunication,” according to the award’s sponsor, the National Book Foundation. Instead of Franny Billingsley’s “Chime,” the book the judges had intended to include, someone had added Lauren Myracle’s “Shine” accidentally.

“For security reasons, we do everything by phone,” explained Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation. “We don’t write things down when [the judges] transmit the titles to our staff. And someone wrote it down wrong.”

It was a nightmarish week for Myracle, who was first told her book had been nominated and then that it had been included by mistake, was informed that it would remain on the list anyway, and then was finally asked to voluntarily withdraw herself from consideration—which she did this past Monday.

The story got me thinking about hearing and mishearing, miscommunication, and mistakes. It was striking to me how far-reaching the consequences of such a silly, small error could be, considering that mishearing is usually more of a cause of bemusement than of misfortune.

When I was a kid, for instance, my mother would listen to National Public Radio every morning on her way to drop me off at school. It took me ages to realize what the jingle at the end (“KYW, Newsradio…ten-six-ty”) was really saying—I always thought it ended with “Texan News,” leaving me perpetually puzzled.

As I discovered while reading one of William Safire’s old “On Language” columns in The New York Times Magazine, these kinds of misinterpretations actually have a name. He calls them “mondegreens,” and to him they are epitomized by many a schoolchild’s version of the Pledge of Allegiance’s opening line: “I led the pigeons to the flag.”

The term “mondegreen” has its origins in a piece by Sylvia Wright entitled “The Death of Lady Mondegreen,” which appeared in a 1954 edition of Harper’s Magazine. Wright recalls one of her favorite childhood songs, the old Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl O’ Morey,” which she originally heard as,

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands

Oh, where hae ye been?

They hae slain the Earl O’ Morey

And Lady Mondegreen…

For years, she says, she was taken up with romantic images of a double murder, a couple’s death. Of course, she later realized, the actual last line read: “And laid him on the green.” The revelation of the line as it really was came as no inconsiderable shock to the young author.

Contemporary examples of mondegreens are similarly blithe, if sometimes absurd. “The girl with colitis goes by,” an ostensible lyric from The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” is a well-known mishearing; another is found in the Rolling Stones’s “I’ll never leave your pizza burning” (I’ll never be your beast of burden). Some seem improvements, or even oddly wise: the slip of the Lord’s Prayer into “And lead us not into Penn Station,” for example.

Such instances of miscommunication are often merely funny or frivolous. They do seem to suggest something more, though—that what we think we hear does not necessarily correlate with any objective reality. Mondegreens are a chance to chuckle over a rather ominous reality: we rely on a system of language and codes that, upon closer inspection, quickly reveals its cracks and flaws.

If mishearing and miscommunication is as old as speech itself, it’s surprising that it took until 1954 to coin a term for a branch of the phenomenon. Perhaps, though, it is only recently that it became so easy to notice when there’s a disconnect between what we hear and what’s really there. Even as our population grows, our number of dominant media sources continues to dwindle. More than ever before, we read and watch and listen to the same things. It is easier now to seek confirmation of what we’re experiencing in others, through a kind of informal fact-checking. As things like music and literature take on global dimensions, we can begin to tell when there’s a gap between what we see or hear and how the rest of the world perceives it; we find truth in consensus. Regardless, these examples seem to suggest that speech does have its limits, shrinkable but not erasable, somewhere in that murky transition from thought to its expression.

These limits aren’t always a bad thing. Sometimes listening can crowd out mishearing, can make misunderstanding felicitous. One of the responses Myracle received following the mix-up about her book, which deals with anti-gay bullying, was as follows: “As a gay boy living in North Carolina, thank you for Shine, which I wouldn’t have known about without the screw-up. You may have saved my life.”

—Victoria A. Baena can be reached at vbaena@college.harvard.edu.

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