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Tonight I was skimming through my list of potential essay topics, looking for one that I wanted to write about. Toward the end, I just had the word mondegreen. I’ll admit that I neither remembered what the word meant, nor why I put it there. So I looked it up. It seems like a good topic for a short essay.

At some point in the past month or two, I was trying to figure out whether I should use the phrase fount of knowledge or font of knowledge. The former seemed more appropriate (unless, of course, I was trying to describe Zapf Chancery), but I know not always to trust my intuition on such things, and so I turned to my favorite reference, Google [1]. Google led me to [an interesting short essay about the topic at Grammarist. Grammarist reminds us that fount is short for fountain, and so fount of knowledge is appropriate. However, it also reminds us that font has a meaning other than collection of characters. A font can be a container of water, such as a baptismal font. And so, although Grammarist suggests that fount is the one appropriate term, it’s clear to me that font is also appropriate; a font of wisdom is a container of wisdom in which you can immerse yourself.

What does that have to do with the strange term at the start of this essay? Well, Grammarist tells us that [f]ont of knowledge and font of wisdom are mondegreens, which are phrases rendered by misinterpreting the proper terms. It strikes me that mondegreen is an really interesting term, although, for the reason I suggest above, it is not clear to me that font of knowledge is really a mondegreen.

But where does the term come from? I had hoped that it was an old term, and perhaps a term oft employed by linguists. However, it appears that the term is relatively recent. Wikipedia tells us that Sylvia Wright coined the term in 1954, writing about how as a girl she had misheard the lyric…and laid him on the green" in a Scottish ballad as …and Lady Mondegreen. Wright’s essay is definitely worth a read [3]. It took me a bit to figure out this Pay Treats Day they celebrate in Massachusetts. However, given that Michelle suffered through the implications of that day, I did figure it out [4].

Unfortunately, too many of the mondegreens I found seem to be of the ’scuse me while I kiss this guy [6] form: simply misheard song lyrics. The original font/fount of wisdom was much more interesting, because it seemed to imply that mondegreens were misunderstandings or mishearings that had entered common usage, or at least could have entered common usage, and could perhaps even be appropriate in either form.

What are others? It strikes me that even though hair’s breadth, meaning a very small amount, is no worse than hare’s breath, meaning a very short time. The latter is clearly a mondegreen in the traditional sense, but it’s also a phrase that has reasonable meaning [7]. I think the pair that originally inspired this essay was free rein vs. free reign, both of which seem appropriate to me, although I believe free rein is the more historically appropriate one.

I wonder if there’s a term for mondegreens that have led to new, sensible, metaphors? If not, I wonder if I can invent one. Better yet, I wonder if there’s a term for my interpretation of font of wisdom as a description of Zapf Chancery. Maybe I’ll come back to that question in a future essay.

[1] Actually, I really love the Chicago Manual of Style as a reference, enough so that I keep all of the editions I’ve owned [2], but it lives in my office, rather than home, so I rely on Web searches.

[2] Much to the consternation of middle son.

[3] Or is it worth a reed? And, if so, what kind? Bari sax? Clarinet? And what thickness?

[4] For those of you not from our fine Commonwealth, Massachusites [5] celebrate Patriots Day.

[5] That’s right, it’s Massachusite, not Masshole. The latter is a term used to describe the big dig.

[6] A common mishearing of Jimi Hendrix’s ’Scuse me while I kiss the sky.

[7] No, I don’t know why a hare would breathe very quickly. Nonetheless, they are fast creatures, so hare’s breath reasonable means a short time.

Version 1.0.2 of 2016-11-06.