A mondegreen // is a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase as a result of near-homophony, in a way that gives it a new meaning. Mondegreens are most often created by a person listening to a poem or a song; the listener, being unable to clearly hear a lyric, substitutes words that sound similar, and make some kind of sense. American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in 1954, writing about how as a girl she had misheard the lyric "...and laid him on the green" in a Scottish ballad as "...and Lady Mondegreen".
"Mondegreen" was included in the 2000 edition of the Random House Webster's College Dictionary. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary added the word in 2008. The phenomenon is not limited to English, with examples cited by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in the Hebrew song "Háva Nagíla" ("Let's Be Happy"), and in Bollywood movies.
A closely related category is a Hobson-Jobson, where a word from a foreign language is homophonically translated into one's own language, e.g. cockroach from Spanish cucaracha. For misheard lyrics this phenomenon is called soramimi. An unintentionally incorrect use of similar-sounding words or phrases in speaking is a malapropism. If there is a connection in meaning, it can be called an eggcorn. If a person stubbornly sticks to a mispronunciation after being corrected, that person has committed a mumpsimus.
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 explained 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."
Her essay had already described the bonny Earl holding the beautiful Lady Mondegreen's hand, both bleeding profusely but faithful unto death. She disputed:
"I know, but I won't give in to it. Leaving him to die all alone without even anyone to hold his hand--I WON'T HAVE IT!!!"
Other examples Wright suggested are:
- Surely Good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life ("Surely goodness and mercy…" from Psalm 23)
- The wild, strange battle cry "Haffely, Gaffely, Gaffely, Gonward." ("Half a league, half a league, / Half a league onward", from "The Charge of the Light Brigade")
Human beings interpret their environment partially based on experience, and this includes speech perception. People are more likely to notice what they expect than things not part of their everyday experiences, and they may mistake an unfamiliar stimulus for a familiar and more plausible version. For example, to consider a well-known mondegreen in the song "Purple Haze", one would be more likely to hear Hendrix singing that he is about to kiss this guy than that he is about to kiss the sky. Similarly, if a lyric uses words or phrases that the listener is unfamiliar with, they may be misheard as using more familiar terms.
The creation of mondegreens may be driven in part by a phenomenon akin to cognitive dissonance, as the listener may find it psychologically uncomfortable to listen to a song and not be able to make out the words, particularly if the listener is fluent in the language of the lyrics. Steven Connor suggests that mondegreens are the result of the brain's constant attempts to make sense of the world by making assumptions to fill in the gaps when it cannot clearly determine what it is hearing. Connor sees mondegreens as the "wrenchings of nonsense into sense".
On the other hand, Steven Pinker has observed that mondegreen mishearings tend to be less plausible than the original lyrics, and that once a listener has "locked in" to a particular misheard interpretation of a song's lyrics, it can remain unquestioned, even when that plausibility becomes strained (for more on this sort of stubbornness, see Mumpsimus). Pinker gives the example of a student "stubbornly" mishearing the chorus to "I'm Your Venus" as I'm your penis, and being surprised that the song was allowed on the radio.
James Gleick claims that the mondegreen is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Although people have no doubt misconstrued song lyrics for as long as songs have been sung, without improved communication and the language standardization that accompanies it, he believes there would have been no way to recognize and discuss this shared experience. Since time immemorial, songs have been passed on by word of mouth. Just as mondegreens transform songs based on experience, a folk song learned by repetition of heard lyrics is often transformed over time when sung by people in a region where some of the song's references have become obscure. A classic example is "The Golden Vanity", which contains the line "As she sailed upon the lowland sea". English immigrants carried the song to Appalachia, where singers, not knowing what the term lowland sea refers to, transformed it over generations from "lowland" to "lonesome".
The top three mondegreens submitted regularly to mondegreen expert Jon Carroll are:
- Gladly, the cross-eyed bear (from the line in the hymn "Keep Thou My Way" by Fanny Crosby and Theodore E. Perkins, "Kept by Thy tender care, gladly the cross I'll bear"). Carroll and many others quote it as "Gladly the cross I'd bear"; They Might Be Giants allude to this line and its mishearing in their title album's song "Hide Away, Folk Family", which contains the line "And sadly the cross-eyed bear's been put to sleep behind the stairs".
- There's a bathroom on the right (the line at the end of each verse of "Bad Moon Rising" by Creedence Clearwater Revival: "There's a bad moon on the rise").
- 'Scuse me while I kiss this guy (from a lyric in the song "Purple Haze" by The Jimi Hendrix Experience: "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky").
Both Creedence's John Fogerty and Hendrix eventually acknowledged these mishearings by deliberately singing the "mondegreen" versions of their songs in concert.
The 1963 song "Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen was so difficult to understand, because of how poorly the Kingsmen's version of it was recorded, that many people suspected the song contained obscene lyrics. The FBI was asked to investigate whether or not those involved with the song violated laws against the interstate transportation of obscene material. The most notable misinterpretation of the lyrics presented by the parent who sent the complaint can be found in the verse "Me see Jamaica moon above; / It won't be long me see me love. / Me take her in my arms and then / I tell her I never leave again". which was misheard as "She had a rag on, she moved above. / It won't be long, she'll slip it off. / I held her in my arms and then, / and I told her I'd rather lay her again". No lyrics were ever officially published for the song, and after two years of investigation, the FBI concluded that the lyrics were unintelligible.
Rap and hip hop lyrics may be particularly susceptible to being misheard because they do not necessarily follow standard pronunciations. The delivery of rap lyrics relies heavily upon an often regional pronunciation or non-traditional accenting of words and their phonemes to adhere to the artist's stylizations and the lyrics' written structure. This issue is exemplified in controversies over alleged transcription errors in Yale University Press's 2010 Anthology of Rap.
"Blinded by the Light", a cover of a Bruce Springsteen song by Manfred Mann's Earth Band, contains what has been called "probably the most misheard lyric of all time". The phrase "revved up like a deuce" (altered from Springsteen's original "cut loose like a deuce", both lyrics referring to the hot rodders slang for a 1932 Ford coupé) is frequently misheard as "wrapped up like a douche". Springsteen himself has joked about the phenomenon, claiming that it was not until Manfred Mann rewrote the song to be about a "feminine hygiene product" that the song became popular.
Sometimes, the modified version of a lyric becomes standard, as is the case with "The Twelve Days of Christmas". The original has "four colly birds" (colly means black; in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare wrote "Brief as the lighting in the collied night."); sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, these became calling birds, which is the lyric used in the 1909 Frederic Austin version.
A number of misheard lyrics have been recorded, turning a mondegreen into a real title. The song "Sea Lion Woman", recorded in 1939 by Christine and Katherine Shipp, was performed by Nina Simone under the title "See Line Woman". According to the liner notes from the compilation A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings, the actual title of this playground song might also be "See [the] Lyin' Woman" or "C-Line Woman". Jack Lawrence's misinterpretation of the French phrase "pauvre Jean" ("poor John") as the identically pronounced "pauvres gens" ("poor people") led to the translation of La goualante du pauvre Jean ("The Ballad of Poor John") as "The Poor People of Paris", a hit song in 1956.
Ghil'ad Zuckermann cites the Hebrew example mukhrakhím liyót saméakh ("we must be happy", with a grammar mistake) instead of (the high-register) úru 'akhím belév saméakh ("wake up, brothers, with a happy heart"), from the well-known song "Háva Nagíla" ("Let’s be happy"). The Israeli site dedicated to Hebrew mondegreens has coined the term "avatiach" (Hebrew for watermelon) for "mondegreen", named for a common mishearing of Shlomo Artzi's award-winning 1970 song "Ahavtia" ("I loved her", using a form uncommon in spoken Hebrew).
The French word "lapalissade", designating a gross truism or platitude, is derived from the name of Jacques II de Chabannes, Seigneur de La Palice, because of a misread mondegreen in a mourning song written just after his heroic death. Reading an "f" as a long "s" (ſ), "s’il n’était pas mort, il ferait encore envie" ("if he was not dead, he would still arouse envy") becomes "il serait encore en vie" ("he would still be alive"). This truism remains as the first and most well-known "lapalissade" in French.
The title of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is often mistaken for a mondegreen. The main character, Holden Caulfield, misremembers a sung version of the Robert Burns poem "Comin' Thro' the Rye": the line "Gin a body meet a body / comin' through the rye" is recalled as "Gin a body catch a body / comin' through the rye." This is not a mondegreen, but a result of a confabulation in Holden's psyche in line with the theme of the novel.
Among schoolchildren in the U.S., daily rote recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance has long provided opportunities for the genesis of mondegreens.
Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in 1875, cited a line from Fyodor Glinka's song "Troika" (1825) "колокольчик, дар Валдая" ("the bell, gift of Valday") claiming that it is usually understood as "колокольчик, дарвалдая" ("the bell darvaldaying"—the onomatopoetic verb for ringing).
The Turkish political party, the Democratic Party, changed its logo in 2007 to one of a white horse in front of a red background because rural voters often could not pronounce its Turkish name (Demokrat), instead saying demir kırat ("iron white-horse").
Some nonsensical lyrics can be interpreted homophonically as rational text. A prominent example is Mairzy Doats, a 1943 novelty song by Milton Drake, Al Hoffman, and Jerry Livingston. The lyrics are a mondegreen and it is up to the listener to figure out what they mean.
The refrain of the song repeats nonsensical sounding lines:
- Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
- A kiddley divey too, wooden shoe
The clue to the meaning is contained in the bridge:
The listener can figure out that the last line of the refrain is "A kid'll eat ivy, too; wouldn't you?", but this line is sung only as a mondegreen.
Other examples include:
- Iron Butterfly's 1968 hit, "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida", a reverse mondegreen of the phrase "In the Garden of Eden", which was going to be the song's title, according to liner notes. (An episode of The Simpsons called "Bart Sells His Soul" has Bart Simpson handing out the song's lyrics as a hymn titled "In the Garden of Eden" by I. Ron Butterfly.)
- Sly and the Family Stone's 1970 hit, "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)", is pronounced "Thank You For Lettin' Me Be Myself Again".
- A plot line in the 1945 comedy-mystery film, Murder, He Says, involves a nonsense ditty repeated by a character, which is a reverse mondegreen that contains a clue to finding some lost money: "Honors flyzis, income beezis, onches nobbis, innob keezis."
- Anguish Languish (English language) by Howard L. Chace contains stories and poems that are deliberate mondegreens using real English words in a nonsensical order. It includes the widely known story "Ladle Rat Rotten Hut" (Little Red Riding Hood).
Two authors have written books of supposed foreign-language poetry that are actually mondegreens of nursery rhymes in English. Luis van Rooten's pseudo-French Mots D'Heures: Gousses, Rames includes critical, historical, and interpretive apparatus, as does John Hulme's Mörder Guss Reims, attributed to a fictitious German poet. Both titles sound like the phrase "Mother Goose Rhymes". Both works can also be considered soramimi, which produces different meanings when interpreted in another language. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart produced a similar effect in his canon "Difficile Lectu" (written c. 1786-87, when he was 30 or 31), which, though ostensibly in Latin, is actually an opportunity for scatological humor in both German and Italian.
Some performers and writers have used deliberate mondegreens to create double entendres. The phrase "if you see Kay" (F-U-C-K) has been employed many times, notably as a line from James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses and in many songs, including by blues pianist Memphis Slim in 1963, R. Stevie Moore in 1977, April Wine on its 1982 album Power Play, the Poster Children via their Daisy Chain Reaction in 1991, Turbonegro in 2005, Aerosmith in "Devil's Got a New Disguise in 2006, and The Script in their 2008 song "If You See Kay". Britney Spears did the same thing with the song "If U Seek Amy". A similar effect was created in Hindi in the 2011 Bollywood movie Delhi Belly in the song "Bhaag D.K. Bose". While "D. K. Bose" appears to be a person's name, it is sung repeatedly in the chorus to form the deliberate mondegreen "bhosadi ke" (Hindi: भोसडी के), a Hindi expletive.
"Mondegreen" is a song by Yeasayer on their 2010 album, Odd Blood. The lyrics are intentionally obscure (for instance, "Everybody sugar in my bed" and "Perhaps the pollen in the air turns us into a stapler") and spoken hastily to encourage the mondegreen effect.
List of mondegreens (raw merged text)
- Gladly, the cross-eyed bear (in the hymn "Keep Thou My Way" by Fanny Crosby and Theodore E. Perkins, "Kept by Thy tender care, gladly the cross I'll bear").
- Calling Jamaica or Calling Chet Baker (in the song "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite" by R.E.M.: "Call me when you try to wake her")
- There's a bathroom on the right (in the song "Bad Moon Rising" by Creedence Clearwater Revival: "There's a bad moon on the rise").
- 'Scuse me while I kiss this guy (in the song "Purple Haze" by The Jimi Hendrix Experience: "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky").
- Run naked through water (in the song "Wanted" by Hunter Hayes: "Wanna make you feel wanted")
- We broke up on the docks that night (in the song "Tangled up in Blue" by Bob Dylan: "We broke up on a dark sad night").
- The girl with colitis goes by (in the song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" by The Beatles: "The girl with kaleidoscope eyes").
- Everybody needs some pushing from below (in the song "Brimful of Asha" by Cornershop: "Everybody needs a bosom for a pillow").
- Hold me closer Tony Danza (in the song "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John: "Hold me closer tiny dancer").
- Iris has the cholera, a thousand dumps a day (in the song "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" by The Police: "I resolve to call her up, a thousand times a day").
- See that girl, watch her scream, kicking the dancing queen (in the song "Dancing Queen" by ABBA: "See that girl, watch that scene, digging the dancing queen").
- Here we are now, in containers (in the song "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana: "Here we are now, entertain us").
- He's dancing with the chicken slacks (in the song "Twistin' the Night Away" by Sam Cooke: "He's dancing with the chick in slacks")
- It doesn't make a difference if we're naked or not (in the song "Livin' on a Prayer" by Bon Jovi: "It doesn't make a difference if we make it or not").
- We're German (in the song "Jamming" by Bob Marley and the Wailers: "We're jamming")
- Slow motion Walter, the fire-engine guy (in the song "Smoke on the Water" by Deep Purple: "Smoke on the water, and fire in the sky")
- Lonely Starbucks lovers (in the song "Blank Space" by Taylor Swift: "Long list of ex-lovers")
Rap mondegreens are exploited by the singer M.I.A. in her single, "Borders". The singer plays on several mondegreens derived from reggae and adds her own (apparently) deliberately indistinct pronunciations of "beat 'em" and "be dum". Towards the end of the song, "peace" is exchanged for "peeps" on many lyrics websites: "we're representing peeps, let them play us on the FM".
A number of misheard lyrics have been recorded, turning a mondegreen into a real title. They include:
- The title of the animated Christmas show Olive, the Other Reindeer is a mondegreen on "all of the other reindeer", a line from the classic Christmas song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer".
The title of the 1983 French novel Le Thé au harem d'Archi Ahmed ("Tea in the Harem of Archi Ahmed") by Mehdi Charef (and the 1985 movie of the same name) is based on the main character mishearing le théorème d'Archimède ("the theorem of Archimedes") in his mathematics class.
A classic example in French is similar to the "Lady Mondegreen" anecdote: in his 1962 collection of children's quotes La Foire aux cancres, the humorist Jean-Charles refers to a misunderstood lyric of "La Marseillaise" (the French national anthem): "Entendez-vous ... mugir ces féroces soldats" (Do you hear those savage soldiers roar?) is heard as "...Séféro, ce soldat" (that soldier Séféro).
The most well-known mondegreen in Brazil is on the music "Noite do Prazer" (Night of Pleasure) by Claudio Zoli: when he sings "Na madrugada a vitrola rolando um blues, tocando B. B. King sem parar" (At dawn the phonograph playing a blues, playing B. B. King nonstop), people often misheard it like it was "Na madrugada a vitrola rolando um blues, trocando de biquini sem parar" (at dawn the phonograph playing a blues, [people are] exchanging bikini nonstop).
The title and plot of the short sci-fi story "Come You Nigh: Kay Shuns" ("Com-mu-ni-ca-tions") by Lawrence A. Perkins, in Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine (April 1970), deals with securing interplanetary radio communications by encoding them with mondegreens.
A monologue of mondegreens appears in the 1971 film Carnal Knowledge. The camera focuses on actress Candice Bergen laughing as she recounts various phrases that fooled her as a child, including "Round John Virgin" (instead of '"Round yon virgin...") and the famous "Gladly, the cross-eyed bear".
In the movie The Long Kiss Goodnight, one character is singing along to the song I'd Really Love to See You Tonight and misquotes one line as "I'm not talking 'bout the linen", before being corrected by another character that the words actually are "I'm not talking about moving in".
In the movie Angela's Ashes, while making the sign of the cross a young Frank McCourt says "In the name of the father, the son and the holy toast" in place of "In the name of the father, the son and the holy ghost".
Mondegreens have been used as a story element in advertising campaigns, including:
- An advertisement for the 2012 Volkswagen Passat touting the car's audio system shows a number of people singing incorrect versions of the line "Burning out his fuse up here alone" from the Elton John/Bernie Taupin song "Rocket Man", until a woman listening to the song in a Passat realizes the correct words.
- A series of advertisements for Maxell audio cassette tapes, produced by Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, shown in 1989 and 1990, featured misheard versions of "Israelites" (e.g., "Me ears are alight") by Desmond Dekker and "Into the Valley" by The Skids as heard by users of other brands of tape.
- An advertisement for Coca-Cola with Lime, in which a technician in the Coca-Cola laboratory rushes to his boss, saying, "Put the lime in the Coke, you nut," to the tune of Harry Nilsson's "Coconut."
- A 1987 series of advertisements for Kellogg's Nut 'n Honey Crunch featured a joke in which one person asks "What's for breakfast?" and is told "Nut 'N' Honey," which is misheard as "Nothing, honey."
- "Mondegreens" is the name of a segment on the Australian music quiz show Spicks and Specks (ABC TV).
- The Two Ronnies comedy sketch "Four Candles" is entirely built around mondegreens, including a taciturn customer's request for "fork handles" being misheard as "four candles."
- Mondegreens are a big feature of the Nickelodeon TV series Rugrats, in which the babies frequently misinterpret many big words as something else. For instance, ATM machine is heard as M&M machine, so they think money bags in the vault have "prizes" inside.