November 13, 2007

Like a ring in a bell

So far today, four people -- in order, Avi Rappoport, Colin Barrett, Jason Wright, and Jon Peltier -- have written to point out an odd expression, "like a ring in a bell", in the second panel of an xkcd cartoon: an eggcorn, or what?  The first three (plus posters on the xkcd forums) identified its source as Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" (released in 1958), where what Berry actually sings is "like a-ringin' a bell" (Johnny B. Goode can play the guitar just like ringing a bell); the original has been re-worked.  The cartoon:

What happened here?  It starts with a kind of mishearing, in this case a misparsing of the original, with the participial prefix a- interpreted as the indefinite article a and the participle ringin' (a verb form) taken to be the noun ring plus the preposition in.  This is a classic mondegreen (indeed, a phonetically perfect one).  In the resulting interpretation, the expression looks like some puzzling sort of idiom.  But then idioms generally don't make perfect sense; sometimes we just live with them, content to see meaningful parts in them.

Who knows who was the first to mishear Berry's original, or how many people independently came to this analysis, but there are a few webhits for it, most of them quotations of the song lyrics, as in

Because despite his challenges, Eddie has a gift for music and he can play his uncle's guitar "like a ring in a bell."  (link)

In this quote, and in the cartoon, what seems to be conveyed is the ease or naturalness of an activity (something pretty close to the reading I get for Berry's original).  But in others, as in this guitar review, the reference is to beautiful bell-like tone:

Beautiful sound, like a ring in a bell that would make Johnny B Goode swoon! Really- it has a VERY nice ring- good harmonics without brittle, ...  (link)

This looks like the road to eggcornville, with an opaque expression reinterpreted so as to make its parts contribute more to the meaning of the whole.  Mondegreen, then eggcorn: a MONDEGGCORN, to use a term Ben Zimmer suggested on ADS-L back in August.  On the 14th, there was this memorable exchange between Ben and Joel Berson:

Zimmer: To be fair, Mark Peters' Babble article on eggcorns includes a mondegreen ("You're a grand old flag, you're a high-fivin' flag"), so it would be easy for a non-initiate to miss the distinction.

Berson: But high-fiving is a celebratory act, so might not someone think it fits with "grand old"?

Zimmer: Sure. It could very well be a mondeggcorn.

The day before, Wilson Gray had considered a blend analysis of an example from his past:

Back in the day, a friend of ours was under the impression that the once well-known brand-name, "Richard _Hud_nut" was "Richard _Hug_nut," interpretable as "Hug_testicle_." We laughed with him, till we realized that he was serious, at which point we laughed *at* him.

And once Ben had posted on "high-fivin' flag", I replied to Wilson:

This looks like a mis-hearing of the non-word "hud" as the phonetically *very* similar actual word "hug", followed by a
rationalization of this perception in an analysis of the result as involving "nut" 'testicle'.  a little mondeggcorn (tm B. Zimmer).

No doubt there are other potential mondeggcorns in the Eggcorn Database.

Back to "a ring in a bell": Several correspondents noted the marked character of the form a-ringin' for them -- archaic or regional or something.  Quite so.  The a-Vin' form has been much studied (in recent decades, by Wolf Wolfram with various collaborators); in the U.S. these days, it's pretty much limited to some relatively isolated areas (the Appalachians, the Ozarks, the Sea Islands), and even there its use is declining.  (For a summary of its properties, see the discussion in this handout of mine.)  It was once much more widespread in the U.S. (and the U.K.), even standard, but now it reminds most people of Hee-Haw or The Beverly Hillbilles.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at November 13, 2007 06:12 PM