My computer’s dictionary defines a mondegreen as “a misunderstood or misinterpreted word or phrase resulting from a mishearing of the lyrics of a song“. The origin is said to date from the 1950s, from “Lady Mondegreen“, a misinterpretation of the phrase “laid him on the green” from a traditional ballad.
Some lovely examples are:
- “steak and knife, steak and knife” rather than the Bee Gees’ “staying alive, staying alive“;
- “there’s a bathroom on the right” for Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “bad moon on the rise“;
- and The Beatles’ “girl with kaleidoscope eyes” becomes “the girl with colitis goes by“!
So what, I hear you say, does this have to do with legal interpretation? Well, the above examples come from a paper entitled “Legal Indeterminacy in the Spoken Word” recently published by Brooklyn Law School’s Professor Lawrence M. Solan and Dr Silvia Dahmen from the University of Cologne.
Their paper reminds us that whilst mondegreens from pop songs are rather fun, mistakes in oral communication in the context of the law can be very serious. The article cites in particular the David Bain case involving police transcription of an emergency call and a subsequent murder charge.
“paint the black whiter” for “paperback writer“.
Enjoy your week! 🙂