08 August 2008

Beautiful mistakes

Earlier this week, Anne shared the whimsical discovery of a new word:
I was listening to “Proud Mary” and googled the lyrics to figure out the phrase “pumped a lot of tane.” The Tina Turner version is ‘tane, for octane, which makes sense as the kind of lousy, hard job someone might have in New Orleans, but wikipedia suggests, too, that the line may be a mondegreen, helpfully linking to an entry on the topic.

The coinage comes from a 1954 essay by Sylvia Wright in Harper’s:
When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy's Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray, [sic]
And Lady Mondegreen.
The actual fourth line is "And laid him on the green." As Wright explained the need for a new term, "The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original."
I was immediately reminded of Walker Percy's essay "Metaphor as Mistake" (from The Message in the Bottle):
I remember hunting as a boy in south Alabama with my father and brother and a Negro guide. At the edge of some woods we saw a wonderful bird. He flew as swift and straight as an arrow, then all of a sudden folded his wings and dropped like a stone into the woods. I asked what the bird was. The guide said it was a blue-dollar hawk. Later my father told me the Negroes had got it wrong: It was really a blue darter hawk. I can still remember my disappointment at the correction. What was so impressive about the bird was its dazzling speed and the effect of alternation of its wings, as if it were flying by a kind of oaring motion.
Percy goes on to explore the implications of this sort of linguistic "error":
It might be useful to look into the workings of these accidental stumblings into poetic meaning, because they exhibit in a striking fashion that particular feature of metaphor which has most troubled philosophers: that it is "wrong"--it asserts of one thing that it is something else--and further, that its beauty often seems proportionate to its wrongness or outlandishness.
It's a fascinating essay that praises the lovely paradox of metaphor and the possibilities of poetic meaning:
That is to say, is it the function of metaphor merely to diminish tension, or is it a discoverer of being?


treena taniesha said...

I was immediately reminded of Walker Percy's essay "Metaphor as Mistake"

--So was I!! Hehe... Lady Mondegreen. Classic.

amcorrea said...

Trust you for that! Hope you're doing well, T. :)