Mondegreens and Mumpsimus (May 2024)

Last time I spoke to you I talked about Aretha Franklin’s song “Respect” and wondered why she wanted us to take out the TCP. This was honestly what I thought the lyrics were when I started writing the assembly, but that was a mishearing. The lyric really is “take care of, TCB” the meaning of which you can look up yourself if you need to. All the years of listening to that song I’d misheard and put in words that sort of sounded like what she was singing and sort of made sense. This, I told you, was a mondegreen. The term was invented in the 1950s by an American writer, Sylvia Wright, whose mother had read her Scottish poetry when she was young. One of her favourites starts with a sad verse in which the reader is told that “they have slain the Earl of Moray and laid him on the green.” This tale was made even sadder, but possibly less confusing to a child who had no way of making sense of that idea, by a mishearing in which both the Earl of Moray and, maybe his wife, Lady Mondegreen had been slain.

You may have your own mondegreens, songs where you thought it said something different to what everyone else had been singing, but they’re surprisingly common – I’m sure you know the Christmas tale about two reindeer called Olive and Rudolph? No, well, quite, it’s a mondegreen, you will know the song about Olive, the other reindeer. There’s a song by Credence Clearwater Revival which talks about a bad moon on the rise that has been misheard as the possibly useful direction – there’s a bathroom on the right, Hispanic Americans have, both accidentally and deliberately, misheard their national anthem as Jose can you see, and generations of small children have searched encyclopaedias for the elusive creature the prairie tortoise having misheard an instruction in church to recite the prayer he taught us.

Going even further back, well beyond Ms Wright and her Scottish massacre, Erasmus (a Dutch humanist, theologian and satirist) wrote in 1516 about a priest who was saying the Latin mass in which there is a line “What we have received in the mouth, Lord” or, rather, with it being a Latin mass, “Quod ore sumpsimus, Domine”. This particular priest didn’t speak Latin and nor did his congregation and so his mondegreen “Quod ore mumpsimus, Domine” went uncorrected until a learned scholar was passing and pointed it out. The priest rolled the version round his mouth a couple of times before deciding that he preferred mumpsimus and had no intention of changing what he said even though it was nonsense. Erasmus tells the tale in order to emphasise the importance of understanding rather than recitation – and as an advert for his new book, a translation of the Bible.

Strictly speaking, then, my last assembly contained not a mondegreen, an innocent mishearing, but a mumpsimus in which I continued in my adherence to my mistake even thought I knew it was wrong. A mondegreen is just a mistake – a mumpsimus is deliberately carrying on with something you have been told is an error. The terms apply properly to misheard poetry, sayings or lyrics, but I think they are useful more generally, and intend, for the purposes of this assembly, at least, to use them in a broader sense.

An example might be urban legends – modern myths that are told as true and believed even though they are, in many cases, demonstrably false. One example involves the presenter of a 1980s kids quiz show called “Blockbusters” – it was revived this century so you might have come across it, but all you need to know is that it was presented by a genial, old fashioned South African called Bob Holness and involved contestants picking letters from a display board. The phrase “Can I have a P please, Bob” reduced playgrounds full of children to fits of giggles throughout that dismal decade. You also need to know about a Scottish singer-songwriter called Gerry Rafferty who is best known for “Baker Street”, a 1978 hit that has a wonderful saxophone solo. It is said, with no supporting evidence whatsoever, that this sax solo was played by none other than Bob Holness. When I first heard this I was surprised, and charmed, being mildly fond of both Baker Street and Bob Holness and believed it to be true – a sort of generalised mondegreen – but I’m afraid that I have not stopped sharing the nugget even though it has been comprehensively debunked – it is now well and truly a mumpsimus and I should really stop it.

This tale is by way of an introduction to three ideas you might have innocently picked up as generalised mondegreens that I would like to comprehensively debunk.

  • You may have got the impression during your GCSEs that doing the minimum work possible throughout the course and fixing your ignorance with a mad push for revision in the week before the exams is a good approach.
  • It might be that you think that life in general and school in particular should be easy – that if something takes hours of hard work then you must be doing it wrong.
  • Finally, I think that some of you think that school is a sort of oppression where teachers have their own agenda and that your interests are best served by avoiding what you’re asked to do as far as possible.

Well, natural though these ideas may be, they’re all wrong. If you left revision to the last minute at GCSE then I’m afraid your grades are worse than they would have been if you hadn’t – and, more importantly, if you try the same approach in your current courses, you will find that they are harder and more extensive and that last minute revision on top of laziness simply doesn’t work: your grades will be truly terrible rather than just a little worse than they might have been. What does work is putting time and energy into your goals – nothing really worth doing is easy, and making the most of your education is definitely worth doing – but it’s not easy, it involves hours of hard work, and the disappointment of getting things wrong and the correction of mistakes. In The Princess Bride, the man in black says “life is pain, highness, anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” I don’t quite agree, but success in life is hard work and you don’t want whatever someone who says otherwise is selling. Which is why it’s rather fortunate that you are able to come to school – a privilege that has not been available to most people your age through history and is still not available to most people across the world. The school leaving age in England was 14 a hundred years ago, was 15 when my father went to school and had been newly raised to 16 when I was born 50 years ago. When you were born, only two thirds of 18 year olds in the UK were still in education and, whilst 95% of children in this country now get a secondary education, that figure is only 45% in South Africa, 25% in Bangladesh, and 5% in Mozambique. You’re lucky to have the opportunities you do – make the most of them.

And so, maybe you have mondegreens of one sort or another – we all do – and the question is what you do when you find out, when someone points out that Aretha Franklin isn’t talking about antiseptic (TCP is short for tri-choloro-methyl-iodo-salycil, although the name is something of a mumpsimus since the stuff you buy that’s called TCP in the chemists hasn’t contained the compound TCP since the 1950s) – when you realise that she’s really asking her partner to take care of business, do you continue as you were before, or do you correct your mistake? When you learn that the techniques you used successfully at 16 will no longer serve you well as you move into adult life, will you cling to what you believed in the innocence of youth, or will you change the way you approach things?

Three positive changes

  • Identifying and addressing your mondegreens is what we call response. Take it seriously, do it well.
  • Work hard, learn to work harder. The more you do now, the easier next year will be.
  • Take advice, listen to it, act on it, starting, if I might be so bold with this.

My point, my final point for today, is that once you know a mondegreen is, well, a mondegreen, then it is one no longer – either you correct to the maybe more mundane, perhaps less poetic, almost certainly not so exotic truth, or you turn the innocent mondegreen into a wilfully ignorant mumpsimus. Be open to learning, even if it means giving up on your fondly held opinions and favourite urban legends. Accept that the saxophone on Baker Street was played by Raphael Ravenscroft, and don’t, please, be a mumpsimus.


1. This assembly acts almost as a second half to Taking out the TCP (even to the point of re-emphasising the importance of the Princess Bride).