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Observations Out of Hours

Of mondegreens, mismatches, and misunderstandings

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 04 February 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:b244
  1. Christopher Martyn, associate editor, BMJ
  1. cmartyn{at}

    Doctor-patient communication often fails not so much because patients don’t understand what doctors say but because doctors aren’t aware that how they talk to patients is inappropriate

    One of the BMJ’s technical editors taught me about mondegreens recently. They’re members of the same genus as malapropisms, dogberryisms, and eggcorns, where a similar sounding word or phrase is substituted for the original, altering its meaning but producing something more or less grammatical and that makes at least some sense. The word was coined by an American writer, Sylvia Wright, who when very young misheard the lines of a Scottish ballad read to her by her mother. “They hae slain the Earl of Moray and they laid him on the green” became, in her childish mind, “They hae slain the Earl of Moray and Lady Mondegreen,” and it stayed that way until she encountered a written version of the verse many years later.

    As so often happens after something is first pointed out, I started seeing mondegreens all over the place. “Give peas a chance”—a spraycan graffito spotted on a motorway bridge—brightened up a tedious journey, although …

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