Watching the French Open Men’s final last week, I was primarily focused on the action on court between Novak Djokovic and Stefanos Tsitsipas and only half-listening to the commentary. As we all know, “half-listening” can be a very dangerous thing – or on the upside, pretty funny. As the players headed off for a quick rub down with a cold towel, I swear I heard one of the commentators say, “Djokovic was definitely hit in the balls.”
This comment instantly turned my semi-attention to full-blown concentration, and I wondered if I’d missed some action on the screen. After all, being smacked in the scrotum by a ball traveling at somewhere in the region of 85-95 miles-an-hour isn’t something you’d fail to notice. At that sort of speed, your meat-and-two-veg are likely to swell up to the size of a melon and a vigorous massage from your physio isn’t going to offer any help whatsoever. So did I really miss one humdinger of a nut nobbling?
It took me maybe a minute to work out that what was actually said was, “Djokovic was definitely hitting the balls.” Clearly I had fallen victim to a spectacular mishearing, or what is commonly called a mondegreen. Given that in spoken language, many of the individual sounds at the beginning and end of words will blend and overlap with others, the phrases “hitting the balls” and “hit in the balls” can be identical.
The process at work here is called phonetic assimilation and it happens all the time. And I mean, all the time. What we think we hear and what actually reaches our brain is often different from what we might believe. In rolling speech, “hit in the balls” will be /’hɪtɪnðəˌbɔlz/ and “hitting the balls” will also be /’hɪtɪnðəˌbɔlz/. That /ŋ/ sound in “hitting” (/’hɪtɪŋ/) becomes an /n/ because it assimilates with the preceding /t/sound, which is made by tongue against the back of the teeth (what we call an alveolar sound) and also with the /ð/ sound that’s also made with tongue between the teeth (or an interdental). The /ŋ/ sound is made at the back of the mouth up towards the soft palate (a velar location) but the process of assimilation in connected speech pulls it forward to become a regular old /n/ sound.
Assimilation is the basis for mondegreens, phrases that are misheard, often to humorous effect but sometimes to the detriment of the listener. The word itself comes from a mishearing of a poem called The Bonny Earl of Murray, which contains the line “They have slain the Earl o’Moray and layd him on the green,” and that in turn was interpreted as, “They have slain the Earl o’Moray and Lady Mondegreen.” It’s a plausible mistake because it’s not impossible that a double murder could have occurred with the Earl and his Lady being the hapless victims. But if we consider the phonetic forms, we can easily see how “laid him on the green” and “Lady Mondegreen” can sound alike:
- Laid him on the green: /’laɪdɪm’ɔnðəˌgrin/
- Lady Mondegreen: /’laɪdɪ’mɔndəˌgrin/
The stress in the second syllable changes and the /ð/ becomes a /d/ in the second instance, but what we might consider to be clear, phonetic differences when written down can be much less clear when spoken and heard. Also, the words in spoken language are separated by spaces like they are in text – they simply all run together into one long stream of sound. It’s the listener that has to decide where the “spaces” are, and it’s not uncommon to get that wrong .
The internet is full of examples of misheard lyrics for songs that have become almost classic example of mondegreens. In Jimmy Hendrick’s Purple Haze, “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky” gets heard as “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy”; George Michael’s I Want Your Sex includes “Sex is natural, sex is good, not everybody does it, but everybody should,” which turns into, “Sex is natural, sex is good, not everybody does it, not everybody should”; Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer has “Doesn’t make a difference in we make it or not” that sounds like “Doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not”; and even I thought for years that when Dobie Gray sang Drift Away, the chorus was “Gimme the Beach Boys and free my soul…” instead of “Gimme the beat boys and free my soul…”
In his classic book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud called such errors “verhören,” which is German for mishearing . His focus wasn’t on the underlying linguistic errors based on the misinterpretation of assimilation processes but on the words actually misheard and what that might say about the individuals underlying psyche. What he’d make of a patient hearing “Scuse me while I kiss this guy” hardly takes six years of Psychoanalytical training to work out but if you’re hearing Abba sing “See that girl, watch her scream, kicking the dancing queen” or Queen sing, “You got mud on your face, big disgrace, kicking your cat all over the place,” then maybe Dr. Freud needs paging after all!
 Although I’m no fan of Donald Trump and take pleasure in hearing and seeing his gaffs, it would be uncharitable of me not to come to his defense in relation to his much ridiculed use of the word “bigly.” What really happened is that he said the phrase “big league” with a weaker stress on the second element “league,” which was in turn misheard by reporters as “bigly.” If you’re not convinced, just try yourself to say “big league” but let that final /g/ sound weaken slightly and you’ll hear that it easily becomes “bigly.” From /’bɪglig/ to /’bɪgli/ is a dropped final consonant away, a process that is stunningly common in connected speech. And as a bonus, I can tell you that “bigly” is a real word that dates from the 15th century and, as an adverb, means “With great forced, firmly, violently; or loudly, boastfully, proudly, haughtily, pompously.” As an adjective, it means “habitable, fit to live in,” and was used in Scotland until it became obsolete in the early 19th century.
 Freud introduced a number of such errors, or what he labeled parapraxes (German Fehlleistungen), that begin with “ver-“: Versprechen (slips of the tongue); Verschreiben (slips of the pen); Verlesen (misreading); Verhoren (mishearing); Vergessen (forgetting of names or intentions); and Verlegen (the misplacing of things). When folks talk about someone making a “Freudian Slip” it’s usually a spoken error – a Versprechen – but as you can see, Freud had a much more extensive classification set to errors. Many of these errors are nowadays analyzed as linguistic phenomena rather than psychoanalytical – but it’s fun to try!
As a side note to the side note, if you intend reading just one of Freud’s books in your life, although The Interpretation of Dreams is typically considered his magnum opus, I highly recommend The Psychology of Everyday Life as an alternative. Along with Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, he builds on many of the themes that he wrote about in The Interpretation of Dreams and applies them to non-pathological areas of life.