Till Morning is Night
Posted by Neal on January 3, 2005
In my last post, I mentioned the substitution of we travel so far for we traverse afar in the Christmas carol “We Three Kings.” I called this a folk etymology, but actually that’s the wrong term. Folk etymology is what happens when a speaker hears a word that doesn’t seem to make sense, and alters it so that it does; for examples, see this definition.
Over the past year at Language Log, a finer distinction has been under development: Folk etymology is reserved for such a tweaking that (1) has caught on and (2) is phonetically distinct from the original word; eggcorn is now used to refer to a folk etymology that (1) hasn’t caught on and (2) is phonetically identical to the original word, revealing itself only when written down. The canonical example of an eggcorn is the one that became the name for the phenomenon: eggcorn, which is phonetically identical to acorn for the speakers who have it in their lexicon. Cases in which only one of the two conditions for either label is met are a gray area.
As for the travel so far error, I next figured the more accurate term was malapropism, wherein a speaker substitutes one entire word for another that sounds similar. The other cases I had in mind from Doug and Adam’s Christmas play are malapropisms:
- (Adam, singing “What Child Is This”)
Haste, haste to bring him log (laud)
- (other kids, singing “Away in a Manger”)
And stay by my cradle till morning is night (nigh)
But looking again at travel so far, since this involves the mishearing of a phrase rather than a single word, instead of a malapropism, I guess I’d have to call it a mondegreen. There’s a fun listing of other mondegreens from Christmas songs here at Snopes.com. There are even some from “We Three Kings,” but not travel so far.
The Snopes people say this about mondegreens and Christmas songs:
Christmas carols and other holiday songs, rife as they are with seldom-heard words and phrasings and clever wordplay, are fertile fields for the sowing of mondegreens–especially when children, with their limited vocabularies, are involved.
I couldn’t have said it better, so I’ll just say that the same goes for malapropisms. Furthermore, I wouldn’t be surprised to find a few folk etymologies and eggcorns hiding in kids’ renditions of some of these songs, too.