RELIGION: Idioms and mondegreens

Do you know what an idiom is? The word originally came from idioumai, which means "to appropriate to oneself."

Using idioms, the speaker gives his or her own peculiar meaning to words or phrases. Therefore, the simplest definition I can give of idiom is "a use of words that, put together, are given a different understanding from the meaning of the words themselves."

Idioms have been developed and used throughout history and they have posed many difficulties in translating ancient documents, including the Bible. (That's one of the reasons why we have so many Bible versions.)

How do idioms affect us today?

Remember the Bugs Bunny cartoons? Bugs would chomp on his carrot and ask, "What's up, Doc?" In the United States, we understood that to mean, "What's happening?" But when the cartoons were taken to Spain, the translators had Bugs saying, "Que pasa in el aire, doctor? (What's going on in the air, doctor?)" And the cartoon didn't make any sense to the Spaniards.

They finally realized the problem and changed Bugs' question to, "Que pasa?" which means, "What's going on?" However, because there were so many idioms in the cartoons, they eventually stopped showing them.

One of the contemporary idioms in America used since around 1980 is "No problem."

I read about a man who asked one of his workers if he knew work started at 9 a.m. When the rather congenial worker responded that he knew it, the foreman asked him to please show up at 9 a.m. if he wanted to continue employment. The man responded, "No problem."

After another two days of showing up around 9:20 a.m., the rather congenial worker, who apparently didn't quite get the message, was looking for another job.

I wonder how often something is said that is not fully understood by the hearers.

There's another concept that's called a mondegreen (mon-de-green). The dictionary defines it as a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase in a way that gives it a new meaning.

I read (on [email protected]) that Sylvia Wright's mother read a poem from "Reliques of Ancient English Poetry" that included the line "and laid him on the green." Sylvia misheard the line and thought her mother said, "And Lady Mondegreen." Therefore, the misunderstanding is called a "mondegreen." There is a mismatch between what our ears hear and the meaning our brain assigns to the sound.

As a child, I gleaned many mondegreens during singing at church. One is from a hymn by Fanny Crosby titled "Keep Thou My Way." The third line in the third stanza is, "Kept by Thy tender care, gladly the cross I'll bear." But my 5-year-old mind heard "Gladly, the cross-eyed bear."

Another time, I learned about Jesus lying in the gravy and it didn't make any sense. Mom had to help me understand that the words in the hymn were "Low in the grave He lay."

Mondegreens are especially prevalent in people who have mild hearing impediments. I remember telling our kids many times to stop running their words together and to speak clearly so I could understand them. Of course, my precious wife let me know that she could hear them as clear as a bell. (A good idiom)

One day, at my family's encouragement, I endured a hearing test. After hearing the results, I remembered that I worked near the rivet line at Boeing's 747 plant in Seattle and the noise damaged my hearing -- but it took 40 years for the damage to show up.

With my hearing aids, I now can hear a pin drop on a rug -- idiomatically speaking.

Clear and proper communication is very important. I learned long ago that approximately 90% of the responsibility for clear communication lies with the speaker and about 10% lies with the listener.

If the speaker wants people to understand his or her message, the speaker must know the audience and speak the proper "language." That includes idioms, dialect and -- as much as possible -- the way the audience thinks. The speaker must know how to "reach" the audience.

The listener must listen and try to understand what's being said. But let me tell you, if the speaker is not speaking clearly, coherently, and with a lively intonation and modulation, the speaker will "lose" the audience.

Proper communication is important.

Use idioms only if they are appropriate and try to avoid mondegreens. You want the audience to look forward to hearing you again.

S. Eugene Linzey is an author, mentor, speaker and president of the Siloam Springs Writers Guild. Send comments and questions to m[email protected]. Visit his website at