Cow saws and mondegreens

A piece in today’s New York Times Magazine (“Lady Mondegreen and the Miracle of Misheard Song Lyrics” by Willy Staley) looks at the (apparent) verb fanute in rap. And gets into the topic via a 1982 Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson:

First, “Cow Tools”, then fanute.

Staley’s piece begins:

Long before the Internet came along and ruined our ability to experience anything and simply enjoy it, Gary Larson drew a “Far Side” cartoon of a cow staring blankly at a table, upon which is a set of poorly made, nonsensical tools. The cow’s brow appears furrowed, as if it is unable to decide which one to use. The caption reads simply: “Cow Tools.” Larson’s logic behind the gag was this: How hideous and apparently useless would a cow’s tool set be?

Unfortunately for Larson, one of the tools vaguely resembled a saw, causing confused readers to seek out human analogs in the rest of the tool set in order to decipher the gag. Predictably this misreading led to frustration and a subsequent outpouring of angry reader mail. According to Larson’s “Prehistory of the Far Side,” it is arguably the most loathed “Far Side” strip ever, which says a lot: the comic was often intentionally obtuse [Larson retired in 1995].

On to the rap:

A recent rap lyric has elicited a cow-tools-esque reaction on the Internet. To be precise, though, we should call it a mondegreen: the term for misheard song lyrics that give rise to new words or meanings. Sylvia Wright coined the term in an essay for Harper’s in 1954, recounting a frequent mishearing of a lyric from “The Bonny Earl O’Moray” that she experienced as a child: “Laid him on the green,” to her young ear, became “Lady Mondegreen.” (Other frequently cited, if not quite current, mondegreens include, “Secret Asian man,” [Secret Agent Man] “Chicken to ride” [ticket to ride] and “ ’Scuse me while I kiss this guy.”) [on kiss this guy, see here and here]

The mondegreen we’re discussing today is “fanute” — rhymes with salute. French Montana, a rapper from Morocco by way of the Bronx, seems to say it on Rick Ross’s “Stay Schemin’,” a recent mix-tape hit. Type “fanute” into Twitter’s search, and you’ll probably see a new tweet surface every 30 seconds or so, with someone misquoting the lyric in question (sometimes ironically) or asking what “fanute” means or just jokingly using it in a sentence. All this was uncovered by a writer, Joe Coscarelli, who discovered that “What does ‘fanute’ mean?” was a recommended Google search; the query was that popular. The word has taken on a life of its own since, and as with many slang terms we adopt into our vocabulary, the line between ironic and sincere usage is never entirely clear, as irony frequently leads to sincerity. “I’ve come so far in the last two, three years. But one never stops improving, so I’ll continue to fanute,” someone tweeted, seemingly sincerely; when someone else tweeted on June 28, “Fanute that health care, dawg,” it was done obviously a bit less so.

So what is the true meaning of “fanute”? Most likely in an effort to save syllables, or out of pure laziness, French Montana omitted most of the hard consonants from the words “from the hoopty coupe to that Ghost, dog” leading to the mondegreen “fanute the coupe to that Ghost, dog.” Fanute is not unlike Larson’s cow’s “saw”: “fanute” is a figment of the viewer/listener’s imagination, and because of the way the sentence is structured, “fanute” appears to be a transitive verb, thus sending the listener on a potentially vexing quest for meaning where there is none to be found.

Well, I still see that cow tool as a kind of weird saw.

2 Responses to “Cow saws and mondegreens”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    The ADS-L posting about this item generated more classic mondegreens. And then, from Benita Bendon Campbell:

    Many years ago, in Paris and then in Princeton, Ann [Daingerfield Zwicky] and I often (oh, very very often) listened to the original cast recording of “Candide.” In the first act song “Oh, Happy Pair,” the line “Somehow we’ll grow as rich as Midas” sounded to me like “Some Harvard Boy as rich as Midas.” After Ann told me the real words, I could hear it correctly, but she found that the Harvard Boy had over-written her own version.

    I’ve heard “Harvard boy” for 50 years now, thanks to this event.

  2. Mondegreen stuff | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] tip to Benita Bendon Campbell, who recalled an anecdote about Ann Daingerfield Zwicky, reported in a comment on a posting of […]

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