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Volume 17, Issue 51;   December 20, 2017: Conceptual Mondegreens

Conceptual Mondegreens

by

Last updated: August 25, 2020

When we disagree about abstractions, such as a problem solution, or a competitor's strategy, the cause can often be misunderstanding the abstraction. That misunderstanding can be a conceptual mondegreen.
Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976

Raquel Welch (left) and Gilda Radner (right) from a Saturday Night Live rehearsal, April 24, 1976. Radner is in costume as Emily Litella. Publicity photo by NBC Television courtesy Wikimedia.

Mondegreens are words or phrases that listeners believe they've heard, but which weren't actually spoken or sung. They sound enough like what was said, and seem to make sense, but they're wrong. A cousin of the malapropism, which is a word or phrase mistakenly substituted by a speaker, the mondegreen is a word or phrase mistakenly substituted by the listener. Mondegreens [Wright 1954] are sometimes very funny, but usually they're just dumb [Barber 1996].

Some famous mondegreens were demonstrated by Gilda Radner, a member of the original cast of Saturday Night Live, an American television program. During the show's simulated news segments, Radner appeared in the role of "Emily Litella," an elderly woman with a hearing problem. As a "columnist," she opined endlessly about topics such as "endangered feces" (species), "saving Soviet jewelry" (Jewry), and "sax and violins on television" (sex and violence). Upon being corrected by the "news anchor," Ms. Litella would sheepishly exit, saying, "Never mind," which became a catch phrase of the day, and remains in use in the U.S.

But I digress.

A conceptual mondegreen is a concept that a discussion participant mistakenly substitutes for the actual concept under discussion. It seems to makes sense, but it's incorrect, causing the misunderstander to miss the point.

For example, in a debate about circumventing arcane accounting rules regarding capitalization of software development, a mondegreen might involve the rules about capitalizing software, instead of software development.

Here are two common situations in which conceptual mondegreens arise.

Problem solving
When trying to explain why a problem solution failed, if the available data is of poor quality or incomplete, formulating a hypothesis can produce conceptual mondegreens. A hypothesis is useful for devising experiments to gather better data, but instead of devising experiments, some people just accept the hypothesis as true. Then they commit the organization to a solution modified on that basis, which can be an expensive error if the hypothesis is incorrect.
When solving A conceptual mondegreen is a
concept that a discussion participant
mistakenly substitutes for the
actual concept under discussion
problems, adopt candidate explanations as mere candidates. Devise experiments to reveal their shortcomings, rather than to confirm their strengths.
Contending with adversaries
Conceptual mondegreens also appear when we try to understand the behavior of adversaries such as political rivals, competitive companies, battlefield opponents, opposing sports teams, or products similar to our own. Observing the adversary's configuration and resources, we project its future behavior. But unlike problem solving, we can't always perform experiments to refine our conjectures. Still, we might try a feint on the battlefield, the playing field, or in the marketplace, to see how the adversary responds. That might provide useful data, but the best data comes from ongoing engagement with the adversary.
Adopt the view that continued engagement with the adversary has value beyond possibly winning the competition. It also provides data that can resolve the conceptual mondegreens pertaining to the adversary's behavior.

When a mondegreen makes an appearance, it can indicate uneven distribution of knowledge or expertise within the group. Unless that's addressed, mondegreens will likely appear again and again. Go to top Top  Next issue: On Assigning Responsibility for Creating Trouble  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[Wright 1954]
The term was coined by Sylvia Wright in a 1954 article in Harper's Magazine, "The Death of Lady Mondegreen," November 1, 1954, pp. 48-51. Back
[Barber 1996]
See also Michael Barber's A Collection of Humorous Mondegreens. Back

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