They hae slain the Earl o' Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen
- from 'The Bonny Earl o' Moray' (Anon)
Lady Mondegreen is a character unique in Scottish folklore. The only clue to her existence is this obscure line from a popular ballad about a nobleman who paid for some court intrigue with his life. Quite how Lady Mondegreen found herself implicated is anyone's guess but her death is known to many of the people who know the ballad. She appears to have been included purely to be killed off for dramatic impact, rather like one of those unfortunate junior officer characters that appear from time to time on the Starship Enterprise.
There are those, whoever, who will deny the death of the Lady, and even her life in the first place. Surprisingly, it doesn't take much for them to convince her mourners that perhaps their tears would be better shed over some other tragic heroine. She is no noblewoman, being nothing more than the bastard daughter of a bad case of van Gogh's ear for lyrics and an unease with thematic loose ends - the actual lyric is 'They hae slain the Earl o' Moray, and laid him on the green'. Her descendants, generically known as 'mondegreens'1 have rampaged through many songs, poems and prose down the ages and caused all sorts of problems: burning ears, shredded American flags and unpleasant bowel disorders, to name but three.
Searching in a Tesco Bag
Mondegreens originate from an all-too-human desire to give meaning to seemingly random information, but owe their continued existence to the inability to come up with anything more meaningful. What starts out as the aural equivalent of an inkblot-test ends up as a badly made, lyrical jigsaw puzzle; all pieces fitting except one, which despite hammering and prodding, never seems to align comfortably with the pattern of the others. But often comfortably enough for a mondegreen to last for years without slipping out of place. This Researcher, for instance, was convinced for some time that Jeff Lynne's search for his 'Sweet Talking Woman' had left him roaming the streets and scrounging for morsels of food in litter: 'I was searching in a Tesco bag'2.
Mondegreens seem to cluster around misfortune. The Earl of Moray's conspicuous and brutal death was merely an extreme case: mere disaffection and loneliness are often enough to bring them flocking. A friend who was a fan of the Police was intrigued that they saw the host of Desert Island Discs as their saviour in times of alienation: 'Sue Lawley, Sue Lawley, Sue Lawley'3, they sang plaintively. She never answered their call. Illness also attracts them: 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' suffered for years, her intestinal misery unknown to all except a few onlookers - 'The girl with colitis goes by'4. Little Miss Muffet, driven mad by years of unrelenting arachnophobia, resorted to 'eating her curtains away5. Other textiles have suffered similar maltreatment. Some Americans have had it in for Old Glory for years - 'I pledged a lesion to the flag'6. It makes a change from burning it, one supposes.
Barmen on the High Seas
So, in this digital age, are mondegreens a threatened species? Hardly7, the sloppy diction of the modern pop song is still sloppy when rendered digitally (a Scots homily about buffing-up an icky object comes to mind8). The pop scene still provides a rich hunting ground for those actively seeking mondegreens. Two particularly memorable British advertisements for cassette tapes made in the '90s utilised this to hilarious effect. A man stood with a set of lyric cards, uncovering them as each lyric was sung, rather like Bob Dylan in his famous 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' film. Except, of course, the songs chosen happened to be 'Into the Valley' by the Skids (a punk band from Dunfermline), and 'The Israelites' by Desmond Dekker, neither song particularly noted for their comprehensibility. 'Ahoy, Ahoy, barman and soda'9, sang out the Skids as they sighted their drinks order from the crow's nest. Meanwhile, Dekker had to contend with a highly localised case of spontaneous combustion: 'Uh, Oh, Me ears are alight!'10. With his now damaged hearing, Dekker's lyrics now probably sound the same to him as they do to the rest of us. As for the Skids, it's rumoured that their fans still have arguments about the meaning of the songs, 20 years on. Let's hope they don't result in any of them being killed and laid out on the green.