Posted in Personal life, Reading, Writing

My Ears Are Alight – and other Mondegreens

Decades ago, when I worked for a PR firm in an old banana warehouse in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral (but that’s another story), my colleague Rob was keen to improve his vocabulary.

Perhaps he was hooked on the old Readers’ Digest column, “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power”, a motto I’ve always admired. He designated a new word to learn every day, which he shared with us all. I worked alongside him for only a few months, but if I’d shared his office for the rest of my career, I reckon he’d have increased my word power too by around 10,000 words.

If we were still in touch, I’d love to share with him the latest new word I’ve learned: mondegreen.

No, it’s not lifted from the Farrow and Ball paint chart, although it does make me picture the colour of fern leaves. Instead, it refers to the phenomenon of mishearing a phrase which you then repeat in its distorted form.

detail of Farrow and Ball paint chart

The mondegreen is a cousin of Chinese whispers, of which my favourite example is my Uncle Peter’s apocryphal story: in the army, the message “Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance” turns into “Send three-and-fourpence, we’re going to a dance”. (The reference to shillings and pence dates it.)

When the brain can’t make sense of a phrase, it creates its own meaningful version.

Thanks to the US national anthem, many Americans think “donzerley” is a word, as in “Oh, say, can you see by the dawn’s early light?” Others think the song is addressed to a fellow called José – “José, can you see…”. It makes me picture Donald Trump taunting Mexicans from the top of his proposed border wall.

Another classic occurs in the 1960s reggae hit, “The Israelites”, in which singer Desmond Dekker enunciates every syllable of the refrain “Poor me Israelites”. Once you’ve heard “My ears are alight”, you can never unhear it.

My favourite mondegreen was of my daughter Laura’s making. Aged five when the first ABBA movie was released, she put on her sixth birthday wish list “something Mamma Mia!-ish”. We bought her a sugar-pink iPod Shuffle preloaded with the soundtrack.

She was a teenager before the realised that in Super Trouper, Anni-Frid is not singing “I was sick and tired of everything when I called you last night from Tesco”, but from “Glasgow”. Now I can’t help but picture poor Anni-Frid pushing her trolley wearily round the supermarket in between gigs.

My colleague Rob would have wanted to know the origin of the word mondegreen. Although a concept as old as song itself, the phrase was coined in 1954 by American writer Sylvia Wright after realising that as a child she’d misheard a line in a Scottish ballad recited to her by her mother:

They hae slain the Earl o’Morley
And laid him on the green.

In her young mind, she’d pictured a double murder – of not only the Earl but also his companion Lady Mondegreen. That makes perfect sense to me.

This post was first published in the March 2023 edition of the Tetbury Advertiser.


If you would like to hear more mondegreens and enjoy entertaining talks about many other aspects of the English language, come along to our next HULF Talk on Saturday 22nd April at St Mary’s Church Hawkesbury in collaboration with the Friends of St Mary’s, I’ll be directing a Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival (HULF) Talk Festival of Words. More information including ticket booking here:,

graphic for HULF Talk save the date notice



ISIS Audio logoISIS Audio, is the Oxford-based recording studio that makes audiobooks for my publisher Boldwood Books and for Ulverscroft, the aspecialist in making books more accessible, reaching a wider audience than is possible with print and ebooks alone. On its website, Ulverscroft describes itself as follows:

“The Ulverscroft Group was founded in 1964 with one aim: to bring back the joy of reading to those who had thought it was no longer possible.” 

These days, audiobooks aren’t just for those with visual impairment, and I’m not averse to reading a large-print book myself when my eyes are tired, even though I’m still comfortable reading without glasses.

I think all three of these organisations do a terrific job in sharing my stories around the world, and I was very pleased to be asked to provide an interview for ISIS, which they shared on social media via this image:

image of ISIS interview


cover of Murder in the HIghlands with sprig of Scottish heather
Now available to pre-order

My latest novel, Murder in the Highlands, the eighth Sophie Sayers mystery, will be published on 15 March by Boldwood Books in ebook, paperback, hardback, large print and audiobook.

Pre-order the ebook online here!

This story starts and finishes in Sophie’s Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow, and in between times she whisks Hector up to Inverness to meet her parents, planning a pleasant holiday. But as they cross the border to Gretna Green, trouble is right behind them, resulting in a murderous pursuit across the beautiful Scottish Highlands!

This book is a celebration of my love for the Scottish Highlands, and I hope that by the time you’ve finished reading it, you’l feel as if you’ve had a Scottish holiday too!

You can already pre-order the ebook, and the other editions including paperback and audiobook will be available to order on launch day online and from bookshops.

As always, if you have any problems tracking down a copy in your chosen format, just contact me via the form on this website.



English author of warm, witty cosy mystery novels including the popular Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries and the Gemma Lamb/St Bride's School series. Novels published by Boldwood Books, all other books by Hawkesbury Press. Represented by Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agents. Founder and director of the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival. Course tutor for Jericho Writers. UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors. Lives and writes in her Victorian cottage in the heart of the beautiful Cotswold countryside.

2 thoughts on “My Ears Are Alight – and other Mondegreens

  1. I had to laugh when I read your post…I was one of those children who thought “donzerly” was an adjective describing the light, but had no idea what it meant. 😉

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