From Stephen Sondheim’s fabulous new book Finishing the Hat (“Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes”), p. 202, a comment on the song “Beautiful Girls” from Follies:

A crtic named Arlene Croce, in her enraged review of Follies, called this lyric “disgusting” in its comparison of middle-aged ladies to beasts, as evidenced by “Beauty celestial / The bestial agree.” [The actual lines go “Beauty celestial / The best you’ll / Agree.”] This kind of aural confusion crops up more often than you might think. When an eight-year-old Linda Rodgers, Richard’s younger daughter, attended Annie Get Your Gun and was asked what she thought of it by her father, a producer of the show, she told her father that she loved “the hurricane song.” The show being hurricaneless, Rodgers asked her which song she was referring to. “Mighty Fences Are Down,” she replied. (The title, for those who don’t know the score, is “My Defenses Are Down.”) I myself had a similar experience when I saw Carousel for the first time, I was startled at the daring openness of hearing Nellie, the hearty café owner, celebrating Julie Jordan’s pregnancy with “Julie’s Busting Out All Over.” (The soprano playing the part was operetta-trained and pronounced “June is” as “June ease.”) These were certainly confusions that neither Berlin nor Hammerstein could foresee, just as “bestial” was one that never occurred to me, but Linda had the excuse of being only eight years old, and in the case of “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” my confusion at least made sense. Ms. Croce’s confusion makes no sense at all–if the ladies are “bestial,” what are they agreeing on? Nevertheless, whether it can be attributed to willful bitchery or natural stupidity on her part, her tirade encouraged me to be careful about aural ambiguities.

[I had to quote the whole thing to get in “willful bitchery or natural stupidity”.]

Mondegreens came up in a serious way on this blog most recently in “The ants are my friends”, here. Before you write in with your favorites, let me remind you that there are many published and on-line collections of the things, and of course a Wikipedia entry. Mondegreen is in OED3 (2002), with nice quotes from Bill Safire and Steve Pinker.


3 Responses to “Mondegreens”

  1. Chris Ambidge Says:

    my friend Chris is into renaissance/medieval dancing and re-enactments. She showed up two hallowe’ens ago in a very lady-of-the-manor dress circa 1400. After much discussion, and fetching of a 21st century sticky “hello my name is…” label, it was decided that her character’s name was “Lady Mondegreen”.

  2. On the culture beat « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

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    […] Mondegreens (link): mondegreen stories from Stephen […]

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