(Extra)ordinary Article 004: Mondegreens & Mumpsimuses

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  • A lot of people know the name of this symbol, but few know where the name comes from. The term ampersand is what is called a mondegreen (what a gorgeous word!). A mondegreen is a misinterpretation of a phrase as a similar-sounding phrase, usually giving new meaning. In this case, “ampersand" is a misinterpretation of the phrase “and per se and," which means:
  • “and (as in &) is the word and"
  • Over time, it got scrunched into “ampersand.” Even though it misinterprets the original phrase, ampersand is quite a beautiful word and an even more beautiful symbol. It is easily my favorite typographical symbol, and I think the biggest reason for this is its creative freedom.
  • There are so many different kinds of ampersands. Some look like 8’s with twist ties in their sides. Others look more like the original ligature combining E and T. And still others seem to take a departure from both extremes. It is a work of art that is so ubiquitous but there is still room to creatively make it your own rare gem. It is a very pretty mondegreen.
  • Most mondegreens, however, are less literary and more lyrical. Misinterpretation of lyrics is where the mondegreen shines. There is even another name for the phenomenon called soramimi. There are loads of them, and you can probably find one you have been singing wrong for years.
  • You have probably been in the situation where you are driving in a car with someone and they sing the wrong lyrics: a lyrical mondegreen. If you correct them and they still hold their ground with the wrong lyrics, you can tell them they are a mumpsimus. The term comes from a story of a priest who misread a word as mumpsimus, and when he was told of his error, replied "I've got so used to using the word mumpsimus that I'll just go on saying it that way." They were told the correct way, but they stuck with their old way of thinking. And this doesn’t just have to apply to lyrics and ampersands: it is about learning from misunderstandings.
  • I try really hard in life not to be a mumpsimus. There are so many facets to our world and, inevitably, some of our beliefs about how it all works turn out to be mondegreens. We think we understand something but it turns out we are thinking about it all wrong. Maybe you misheard your high school chemistry teachers or misinterpreted a history fact. Maybe you don’t fully understand the significance of a passage in a work of literature. We all go through life with mondegreens littering our brain. We think the world is a certain way. The amazing thing is that you can find out you were wrong about something. And it can be totally awesome. You can correct the mondegreens you have in your mind. In those moments of realization, you have a choice:
  • You can understand how you are wrong and learn from it. You can be amazed that the world is so crazy awesome and keep learning new things.
    Or you can learn nothing and be a mumpsimus.
  • Don’t be a mumpsimus.
  • Stay open to changing your way of thinking. Learn constantly.
  • Correct your mondegreens.