A mondegreen is the mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase as a result of near-homophony, in a way that gives it a new meaning. It most commonly is applied to a line in a poem or a lyric in a song. American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in her essay "The Death of Lady Mondegreen," published in Harper's Magazine in November 1954. "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.
The 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 the 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 may mistake an unfamiliar stimulus for a familiar and more plausible version. For example, in everyday speech, one would be more likely to hear somebody recalling how they kissed this guy than saying that they were about to kiss the sky. Similarly, if a lyric uses words that the listener is unfamiliar with, they may be misheard as using more familiar terms.
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 repeated in a country where people are unfamiliar with some of the song's references is often transformed. A classic example is The Golden Vanity, which contains the line "As she sailed upon the lowland sea." The song was carried to Appalachia by immigrants from England, where singers, not knowing what the lowland sea refers to, transformed it over generations from "lowland" to "lonesome".
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".
- "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."
- 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").
Likewise, on the video for the 2000 Zoom concert with a re-formed Electric Light Orchestra, Jeff Lynne, on the song Showdown sings "It's a real submarine,"' a common mishearing of his original lyrics "It's unreal suffering." On the ELO song Can't Get It Out of My Head the line "Walking on a waves chicane" (chicane is the top frothy crest of a wave) is often misinterpreted as "Walking on the waves she came."
The 1963 song "Louie Louie" by The Kingsmen, actually a sea shanty, 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 American 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's 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 1960s slang for a 1932 Ford coupé) is frequently misheard as "wrapped up like a douche." Springsteen himself has joked about the controversy, 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); 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. 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 song "Sea Lion Woman," recorded in 1939 by Christine and Katherine Shipp, was performed by Nina Simone under the title "See Line Woman" and later by Feist as "Sealion." 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, which in no way hindered it from becoming a major hit 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 do love her", using a form uncommon in spoken Hebrew).
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 de Archimède ("the theorem of Archimedes") in his math class.
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 mondegreen in a mourning song written just after his heroic death (and not, as is sometimes believed, because Jacques de La Palice was prone to uttering truisms). The mourning song reads:
- Hélas, La Palice est mort,
- Est mort devant Pavie;
- Hélas, s’il n’était pas mort,
- Il ferait encore envie.
- Halas, La Palice is dead,
- Put to death in front of Pavia;
- Halas, if he were not dead,
- He would still arouse envy.
Intentionally or not, the last line was misread in the following way :
- Hélas, s'il n'était pas mort,
- Il serait encore en vie."
- Halas, if he were not dead,
- 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 comes from the main character, Holden Caulfield, mishearing a sung version of the Robert Burns poem Coming Through the Rye: the line "Gin a body meet a body / comin' through the rye" is understood as "Gin a body catch a body / comin' through the rye."
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 radio communications by encoding them with mondegreens.
- Mondegreens have been used as a story element in advertising campaigns, including:
- A commercial 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.
- A commercial 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 commercials for Kellogg's Nut 'n Honey Crunch was based on a joke in which one person's declaration that breakfast will be "Nut 'N' Honey" is misheard by another person (or persons) as "Nothing, honey," who then becomes upset at the prospect of being offered no breakfast. In one example, hungry cowboys pull a gun on the cook when he says that breakfast will be "Nut 'N' Honey" (heard as "Nothing, honey"). The ad faced widespread protests for promoting antigay violence as humorous. Ultimately, the cereal itself had to be renamed "Honey Crunch Corn Flakes."
- "Mondegreens" is the name of a segment on the Australian music quiz show Spicks and Specks (ABC TV).
- The Two Ronnies comedy skit "Four Candles" is entirely built around mondegreens, including a taciturn customer's request for "fork handles" being misheard as "four candles." The comic effect is enhanced by the strong regional accents affected by the actors.
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).
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, which involves a nonsense ditty repeated by a character, which is a reverse mondegreen that contains a clue to finding some lost money.
- 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 ca. 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.
A well-known[according to whom?] trick is to ask someone to try to translate the supposedly Spanish "Si senor, dere dego, forte lorez inaro. Demaint lorez, dematrux, fullo gese enens andux", which when you read it phonetically is "Si senor, there they go, forty lorries in a row. Them ain't lorries, them are trucks, full o' geese n' 'ens and ducks". Another version is that from faux-Latin: O civile si ergo, fortibus es in ero, o nobile deus trux, votis inem Causan dux. "Oh see, Willy, see her go; forty busses in a row. Oh no, Billy, they are trucks. What is in 'em? Cows and ducks."
Some performers and writers have used deliberate mondegreens to create double entendres. The lyric "if you see Kay" (F-U-C-K) has been employed many times, 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 'Junior Citizen' in 1995, and Turbonegro in 2005, as well as a line from James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses. Britney Spears did the same thing with the song "If U Seek Amy", as did The Script in their 2008 song "If You See Kay" and Aerosmith in "Devil's Got a New Disguise." 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.
The Klaatu song Silly Boys from the album Sir Army Suit uses the vocal track from a song on an earlier album, Anus of Uranus, run backwards with a new, correctly recorded instrumental backing track. The lyrics printed on the lyric sheet were written to portray a literal interpretation of the lyrics, as they would normally be heard, without the assistance of backmasking, resulting in slightly non-sensical phrases (including the title of the album) and could all be considered mondegreens. The lyrics were also printed backwards on the lyric sheet.
- Folk etymology
- Homophonic translation
- Mad Gab
- Mind rhyme
- Phono-semantic matching
- Relaxed pronunciation
- ""Mondegreens" - Commonly Misheard Song Lyrics".
- The Word Detective: "Green grow the lyrics" Retrieved on 2008-07-17
- Sylvia Wright (1954). "The Death of Lady Mondegreen". Harper's Magazine 209 (1254): 48–51. Drawings by Bernarda Bryson. Reprinted in: Sylvia Wright (1957). Get Away From Me With Those Christmas Gifts. McGraw Hill. Contains the essays "The Death of Lady Mondegreen" and "The Quest of Lady Mondegreen."
- CNN.com: Dictionary adds new batch of words. July 7, 2008.
- NBC News: Merriam-Webster adds words that have taken root among Americans
- Достоевский Ф. М. Полное собрание сочинений: В 30 тт. Л., 1980. Т. 21. С. 264.
- Ghil'ad Zuckermann Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, (Palgrave Studies in Language History and Language Change, Series editor: Charles Jones). ISBN 1-4039-1723-X. 2003m p, 248
- Otake, Takashi (2007). "Interlingual near Homophonic Words and Phrases in L2 Listening: Evidence from Misheard Song Lyrics". 16th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences. Saarbrücken: icphs2007.de. pp. 777–780. "But whereas ordinary Mondegreen occurs within a single language, Soramimi awaa is unique in that it occurs cross-linguistically in hearing foreign songs"
- Michael Quinion (17 Mar 2001). "World Wide Words".
- Ira Hyman (8 April 2011). "A Bathroom on the Right? Misheard and Misremembered Song Lyrics". Psychology Today.
- Steven Pinker (1994). The Language Instinct. New York: William Morrow. pp. 182–183. ISBN 0-688-12141-1.
- James Gleick (2011). The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. New York: Pantheon. ISBN 978-0-375-42372-7.
- "Sinking In The Lonesome Sea lyrics". Retrieved 19 August 2011.
- "But, though mishearings may appear pleasingly or even subversively to sabotage sense, they are in fact in essence negentropic, which is to say, they push up the slope from random noise to the redundancy of voice, moving therefore from the direction of nonsense to sense, of nondirection to direction. They seem to represent the intolerance of pure phenomena. In this they are different from the misspeakings with which they are often associated. Seeing slips of the ear as simply the auditory complement of slips of the tongue mistakes their programmatic nature and function. Misspeakings are the disorderings of sense by nonsense; mishearings are the wrenchings of nonsense into sense." Steven Connor (14 February 2009). "Earslips: Of Mishearings and Mondegreens".
- Frances Crosby. "Keep Thou My Way". The Cyber Hymnal. Retrieved 2006-09-06.
- "Did Jimi Hendrix really say, "'Scuse me, while I kiss this guy?"". Retrieved 2007-12-18.
- Letters, The Guardian, 26 April 2007.
- This can be heard on his 1998 live album Premonition. CCR/John Fogerty FAQ at superseventies.com.
- "Louie Louie". 2007. Retrieved June 28, 2011.
- "Louie Louie (The Song)". FBI. 1964. p. 3. Retrieved March 4, 2013.
- Article on Yale "Anthology of Rap" lyrics controversies, Slate.com, 2010.
- Q: "Blinded By the Light, Revved Up Like a..." What?, Blogcritics Music
- "Bruce Springsteen". VH1 Storytellers. Episode 62. 2005-04-23. VH1.
- "A Christmas Carol Treasury". The Hymns and Carols Of Christmas. Retrieved 2011-12-05.
- There was this review of the Austin arrangement in The Musical Times, Nov. 1, 1909, p. 722: 'The twelve days of Christmas' is a clever arrangement of a traditional song of the cumulative or 'House that Jack built' type. 'What my love sent to me' on the first, second, third day of Christmas, and so on down to the twelfth, reveals a constantly increasing store of affection and generosity. The first day's gift is 'a partridge in a pear-tree'; that of the twelfth comprises 'Twelve drummers drumming, eleven pipers playing, ten lords a-leaping, nine ladies dancing, eight maids a-milking, seven swans a-swimming, six geese a-laying, five gold rings, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle-doves and a partridge in a pear-tree.' No explanation is given of any subtle significance that may underlie the lover's wayward choice of tokens of his regard. To the captivating, if elusive, tune of this song Mr. Austin has added an accompaniment that is always ingenious, especially where it suggests the air that is being played by the eleven pipers, always varied and interesting, and never out of place. The song is suitable for a medium voice."Twelve Days of Christmas". Retrieved 2013-11-10.
- "A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings". Amazon.com. Retrieved May 14, 2009.
- Jack Lawrence, Songwriter: Poor People Of Paris
- Ghil'ad Zuckermann ‘‘Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew’’, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, (Palgrave Studies in Language History and Language Change, Series editor: Charles Jones). ISBN 1-4039-1723-X. 2003m p, 248
- Avatiach - Hebrew mondegreens
- Crawford, Joanna (2010). A Displaced Person. AuthorHouse. p. 83. ISBN 978-1-4490-7988-8.
- "Awful Glimpse". The Aeroplane and astronautics 99: 145. 1960.
- "'A Monk Swimming': A Tragedian's Brother Finds More Comedy in Life". The New York Times.
- "2012 Passat Commercial: That's what he says?". Retrieved 28 Nov 2011.
- Kanner, Bernice (1999). The 100 best TV commercials-- and why they worked. Times Business. p. 151.
- "Video Ad Library: Kellogg Co. - Nut 'n Honey Crunch - Jensen AdRespect Advertising Education Program".
- "Spicks and Specks, Episode 15".
- "Four candles". Retrieved 28 Nov 2011.
- Francis Bellamy. ""Pledge of Allegiance" Funny Misheard Lyrics". Retrieved 18 July 2011. or, for instance: "... And to the republic; For which it stands; One nation underdog; With liver, tea, and justice for all."
- Randall, Dale B. J. (1995). "American "Mairzy" Dottiness, Sir John Fastolf's Secretary, and the "Law French" of a Caroline Cavalier". American Speech (Duke University Press) 70 (4): 361–370. doi:10.2307/455617. JSTOR 455617.
- Hocquard, Jean-Victor (1999) Mozart ou la voix du comique. Maisonneuve & Larose, p. 203.
- Jesse Sheidlower (March 19, 2009). "If You Seek Amy's Ancestors". Slate
- Montgomery, James (February 9, 2010). "Yeasayer Lead Us Through Odd Blood, Track By Track". MTV. Retrieved February 10, 2010.
- Further reading
- Connor, Steven. Earslips: Of Mishearings and Mondegreens, 2009. 
- Edwards, Gavin. Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy, 1995. ISBN 0-671-50128-3
- Edwards, Gavin. When a Man Loves a Walnut, 1997. ISBN 0-684-84567-9
- Edwards, Gavin. He's Got the Whole World in His Pants, 1996. ISBN 0-684-82509-0
- Edwards, Gavin. Deck The Halls With Buddy Holly, 1998. ISBN 0-06-095293-8
- Gwynne, Fred. Chocolate Moose for Dinner, 1988. ISBN 0-671-66741-6
- Norman, Philip. Your walrus hurt the one you love: malapropisms, mispronunciations, and linguistic cock-ups, 1988. ISBN 978-0-333-47337-5
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