The little boy was confusing the lyric, "Round yon virgin."
Come to think of it, the little imp was on to something. "John" sounds a heck of a lot more reasonable to an English speaker than "yon," an archaic form of "yonder," which we most of us reserve for the annual Renaissance faire.
I probably laughed every time I heard that story. But I had no idea that there was a term to describe such flubs or that, decades later, I'd be writing about it. The word is "mondegreen." And I bring it up now because it's a common topic of discussion among linguists — and I don't want them to have all the fun.
My "Webster's New World College Dictionary" doesn't have the word. My 1985 "American Heritage Dictionary" Second College Edition doesn't have it, but my 2006 "American Heritage Dictionary" does: "mondegreen" as: a series of words that result from the mishearing or misinterpretation of a statement or song lyric.
For example, 'I led the pigeons to the flag' for 'I pledge allegiance to the flag.'"
To get the full story behind the word, you have to turn to Wikipedia, which may or may not be as reliable as my own childhood news sources. According to it, a writer named Sylvia Wright (coincidence?) coined the term in an essay in Harper's Magazine in 1954. She wrote that when she was a child, her mother used to read to her, among other things, a 17th century ballad called "The Bonny Earl of Murray."
Wright wrote: "One of my favorite poems began, as I remember: Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, Oh, where hae ye been? They hae slain the Earl Amurray, [sic] And Lady Mondegreen."
There was no Lady Mondegreen. That last line was actually, "And laid him on the green." In her article, Wright labeled all such boo-boos "mondegreens."
Lingists loved it. It was carte blanche to delight in silly song lyrics while still getting to feel smarter than the 99.99% of us who were not experts in 17th century poetry by age 8.
So "a girl with kaleidoscope eyes" becomes "a girl with colitis goes by," and high-falutin' academics get to giggle right along with us boors.
"The ants are my friend, it's blowing' in the wind," "'S'cuse me while I kiss this guy," "Donuts make my brown eyes blue" — they're all the stuff of academia and reference books now.
I tried to come up with a term for the masses — an alternative to the ridiculously erudite "mondegreens."
But the term I came up with may have overshot my aim of lowbrow: I was thinkin' we could call 'em, "fight-passing germs," as in, "Fight-passing germs set sail that day on a three-hour tour — a three-hour tour."
JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer and author of "Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies." You can reach her at JuneTCNaol.com.