I have seen a limit to all perfection.
— Psalms 119:96
My mother always misremembered sayings. “Better late than lost,” she might say, or, “Early to bed, and you get up even earlier.” It was charming, and I thought of her often when I encountered characters in literature prone to misquotations. Catherine, the maid in Jules Verne’s Extraordinary Voyage, is one of these. “He who laughs last, laughs from his backside,” she announced, instead of “he who laughs last laughs best.”
Sometimes misremembered sayings take on a life of their own. I was amazed to learn that the original lyrics to “The Twelve Days of Christmas” included the words, “four colly birds,” colly meaning black. Over time the misremembered phrase, rendered as “four calling birds,” became the accepted norm. And who doesn’t remember Bogart’s famous line in Casablanca as “Play it Again, Sam”? Well, he never actually said it — the phrase came from Woody Allen — but no one cares. (For the record, it’s Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa Lund, who says, “Play it, Sam. Play,” about the song “As time Goes By.”)
For me, though, the phenomenon of misremembering traces its way through my church memory. I have spoken before of my confusion over the “miserable chord” the priest kept referring to (instead of Misericord). And my mom, despite her own mistakes, was furious one year when I belted out, “Joy to the world, the Lord has gum!” during the Christmas carols. Later I took comfort from discovering that this was a shared misunderstanding. Malachy McCourt, in his charming novel, uses a misheard phrase from the “Hail Mary” as the title of his book: A Monk Swimming. As in: “Hail Mary, full of Grace, blessed art thou, a monk swimming.” This, as they say, is a perfect mondegreen, a word coined by American writer Sylvia Wright to mean a misremembered phrase.
Perhaps more fascinating is how we have participated in a rewriting of the Bible without realizing it, so that many sentences are spoken as gospel truth when in fact they don’t appear in the holy book. The examples are many and surprising: “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” “God works in mysterious ways,” “The lion shall lay down with the lamb,” and “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” There are certainly passages that approximate the sentiment of many of these now established sayings, but that’s about it.
Perhaps the takeaway message is simply this: we are flawed and imperfect, searching always for the mot juste, but finding only snippets of understanding. In some ways, this is reassuring. As Salvador Dali once put it, “Have no fear of perfection — you’ll never reach it.” Or as my mom might say: “Practice makes . . . a person very tired.” Wise words to welcome in the new year.
Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.