Saturday, March 22, 2014

“The death of Lady Mondegreen”

Things aren’t always what they seem, in the English language. They say (“They”!) that English is the easiest language in the world to be understood in, but one of the hardest to speak well. With only 800 words (They say), a total stranger can get by, but years of practice will usually leave him a bit short of perfection. (Surely German is fifty times more difficult. It’s a wonder anybody speaks it well. And actually, when you think about it, we only have their word for it that anybody does speak it well.)

English spelling is a hodge-podge of folk-etymology and class eccentricities. Who else but the English upper class would identify one’s nightly sleep as a dietary “fast” to the point of calling the first meal of the day “break-fast”, while abbreviating it to “brekkie”? Well, until recent Centuries only upper-class clerics were literate, and claimed to know everything there was to know about the language.

An infinitely more plausible speculation is that the word we pronounce brekfust is but a dialectal variant of Scandinavian frukost, which means a meal comprising fruit (fruk) and cheese (ost). That might be folk-etymology too, but who knows? Fruit and cheese is a man’s brekkie. When we break our “fast” is when we get up in the middle of the night for a pee and raid the fridge on the way back. I know, the Vikings didn’t have fridges, but they would have shared the same nocturnal habits. ***
*** A friend has pointed out that the Scandinavian word may have originated in the German word frueh-kost meaning "early food". This seems a more likely explanation than mine; but, either way, English "break-fast" is nonsense.

It was, reportedly, an 18th-Century Earl of Sandwich who introduced his handy snack to his aristocratic chums at the roulette wheel, but his serfs had been munching pieces of bread with bacon + a wedge of cheese for many generations before. One can picture the chums laughing at his adoption of such peasant fare: “A sarney-wedge, my lord? More of a Sand-wich, what, what? Hahaha!”

Next: why is “cupboard” spelt the way it is? A cupboard is a cubby-hole with a door, and a cubby is simply a variant of a cabi-net. All cupboards have doors. A cupboard without a door is a pantry. A board that you keep cups on is a shelf. Sheesh! The bizarre spelling “cupboard” is folk-etymology deriving from upper-class eccentricity.

My personal term for this sort of rot is “muster-bin”. The imagined origins of English surnames present a long list of muster-bin falsehoods. The first person bearing the surname Smith must ha’ bin a smith by trade. The first Mr Brown must ha’ bin brown in skin or hair or eyes. The first Jones and Johnson were the sons of men named John. And so on. They simply must have been. Actually, as we say in the Caribbean, “they don’t must.” There are more plausible alternative explanations for those names. But plausibility finds it hard to beat out facile assumptions.

To Lady Mondegreen, now. Not quite a folk-etymology, because it was invented by a child who grew up to be a writer – one Sylvia Wright. In 1954, she published an essay on a verse her mother used to read to her from an 18th-Century collection of ballads:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, 
Oh, where have ye been? 
They have slain the Earl o' Moray, 
And Lady Mondegreen.

The little girl felt desperately sad for the poor lady who died with one of Scotland’s famous martyrs, and resented the poet’s failure to mention her again in his story. Decades passed before the adult Sylvia Wright actually read the poem for herself, and learned that the killers of the Earl o’ Moray had in fact laid him on the green. Unaccompanied.

Wikipedia tells the story, and gives other examples of what are today called Mondegreens. We all have our favourites. Bob Dylan sang “the ants are my friends”, Creedence in Bad Moon Rising sang “there’s a bathroom on the right”. And, at Number One, for me, the last verse of Psalm 23, which begins “Surely good Mrs Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life”.