Mondegreens: Misheard Lyrics
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.