Did I hear that right?

Published 8:47 pm Tuesday, February 16, 2010

William Safire was a wordsmith. He was also a speech writer, columnist and political commentator. It was his love of words and of writing that led him to pen the column, On Language, in the New York Times more than 25 years.

One of those columns is titled “I Led the Pigeons to the Flag.” I was introduced to this column when I was in junior high school and it’s stayed with me, or at least that phrase has.

The premise of Safire’s column is simple. People speak what they hear and for many people, mainly schoolchildren, “I pledge allegiance,” sounded like “I led the pigeons.”

Or “I pledge a legion.”

That’s what they heard so that’s what they said.

That’s not the only sound-alike part of our national pledge. Safire said “one nation, indivisible,” can easily be translated verbally into “one naked individual” or “one national and a vegetable.”

Or, as Safire described, the much-admired man, Richard Stans, as in “and to the republic for Richard Stans.”

Safire summed it up justly in his 1979 column: “We all hear the same sounds. But until we are directed by the written word to the intended meaning, we may give free rein to our imagination to invent our own meanings.” (“Free rein” has to do with letting horses run; some people are changing the metaphor to government, spelling it “free reign.”)

Most of us can probably give examples of our own misheard and mispronounced phrases.

I remember my dad getting on to us as children because we were singing the then-popular Oak Ridge Boys song “Elvira.” He thought we were saying “Hell Fire Up,” (whatever that means) and didn’t want us saying such words.

Or the fact that when I was a child, I used to think Bennie of Elton John and “Bennie and the Jets” fame wore a mole pair suit, as opposed to a mohair suit, though I can’t say either makes much sense.

And then there was my child, who added her own lyrics to the classic (though depressing) “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” In her 2-year-old mind, it became “Swing Low, Sweet Cheerios.”

It turns out such phrases actually have a name. They are called mondegreens and are defined as “mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase, typically a standardized phrase such as a line in a poem or a lyric in a song, due to near homophony, in a way that yields a new meaning to the phrase.”

And they do yield new meanings. After all, the Pledge of Allegiance takes on an entirely new meaning when you know pigeons are involved.

–Leada Gore is publisher of the Hartselle Enquirer.