Mondegreens: Misheard Lyrics

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Modegreens

I’ve written before about the curious fact that there are a number of linguistic terms for things I recognize but never knew had a name. Mondegreen is one of those terms.

A mondegreen is the mishearing or misrepresentation of a phrase, usually from a song or poem. In a recent post, I pointed out that “a blessing in the skies,” “for all intensive purposes,” and “it’s a doggy-dog world” are all examples of mondegreens.

The term mondegreen was coined by American writer Sylvia Wright in her essay “The Death of Lady Mondegreen.” In it, she describes her misinterpreting a line in the poem “The Bonny Earl O’Moray.”

When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

The actual fourth line is “And laid him on the green.” Wright goes on to explain the need for a new term:

The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.

Have you ever confidently recited a poem or sung a song only to find out that you have completely misunderstood a line? One of the most famous is the not-uncommon mishearing of a line from Jimmy Hendrix’s song “Purple Haze”:

‘Scuse me, while I kiss this guy!

Of course, the actual line is “‘Scuse me, while I kiss the sky.”

The following were offered in Wright’s essay:

  • Surely, Good Mrs. Murphy will follow me all the days of my life. (from Psalm 23: Surely goodness and mercy...)
  • Haffely, Gaffely, Gaffely, Gonward. (from “The Charge of the Light Brigade”: Half a league, half a league, half a league onward)

Other mondegreens from songs include:

  • Gladly, the cross-eyed bear (from the hymn “Keep Thou My Way”: Gladly the cross I’d bear)
  • There’s a bathroom on the right (from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising”: There’s a bad moon on the rise)
  • She’s got a chicken to ride (from the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride”: She’s got a ticket to ride)
  • Four-headed woman (from the Bee Gees “More Than a Woman.”)

Christmas songs are particularly susceptible to mondegreen. Can you correctly translate the following mondegreens from Christmas carols?

  • Get dressed ye merry gentlemen
  • Chipmunks roasting on an open fire
  • Barney’s the king of Israel
  • Round John Virgin, mother and child
  • Joyful, oily nations rise/Join the triumph of disguise
  • Oh, what fun it is to ride with a one horse, soap and sleigh

Here are some other misheard lyrics from popular songs:

  • “What a Wonderful World”  The bride bless the day, the dogs say goodnight…
  • “Jet Airliner” Big Ole Jed had a light on…
  • “Taking Care of Business” Baking carrot biscuits…
  • “All My Loving” All my luggage, I will send to you…
  • “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” Donuts make my brown eyes blue…
  • “Drift Away” Give me the Beach Boys and free my soul…
  • “Tiny Dancer” Hold me closer, Tony Danza…
  • “Every Step You Take” I’m a pool hall ace… (actually: how my poor heart aches)
  • “The Star-Spangled Banner” Jose, can you see?…

How about you? Do you have any funny mondegreens you’ve heard or created? Kids are particularly good at mishearing lyrics and repeating them with confidence! Share yours in the comments below.

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Genevieve
    Genevieve10-31-2014

    Until I was at least 12, I thought that the line from Amazing Grace was “Through many dangers, toads and snakes” instead of “toils and snares.” :}

  2. Lynne
    Lynne01-14-2013

    My granddaughter Tillee thought Bob the Builder was Bob Matilda. Had to show it to her in writing before she would believe us.

    Another child insisted her teacher taught her in ‘Please don’t call me a koala bear’ : I want the name to stink. [stick]

  3. Linda Whitlock
    Linda Whitlock10-10-2012

    I’m not sure if it was my grandson who came up with this one or if I heard it somewhere else:

    From the country song, “Lucille,” by Kenny Rogers.

    “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille,
    with four hundred (four hungry) children and a crop in the field.”

  4. Mary Brueggemann
    Mary Brueggemann10-10-2012

    As a kid, when I watched Little House on the Prairie, I thought the people in church were singing “Bringing in the Cheese” instead of “Bringing in the Sheaves.” :)

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko10-11-2012

      Lol. I don’t think you’re the only one, either!

  5. Linda
    Linda10-10-2012

    “I’m not talking ’bout Bolivia,
    And I don’t want to meet your wife.
    But there’s a warm wind blowing and stars around
    And I really want to see you tonight.”

    “When Jesus took my bird eggs away” ( burdens away!)
    Let’s just say I have some family members with hearing problems!

    These are all so funny. Thanks!

  6. Paul Schwarz
    Paul Schwarz10-10-2012

    I (mis)heard one from ELO the other day — at least this is the way I heard it in my childhood:

    “Medieval woman . . .”

    Then there’s this one from Hot Chocolate:

    “I believe in milk cows” (“I believe in miracles”)

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