The term mondegreen, itself a mondegreen, was coined in 1954 by American writer Sylvia Wright in a Harper’s Magazine article titled, The Death of Lady Mondegreen. A mondegreen is the mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase occurring most often when listening to a poem or song. Steven Connor, of the University of Cambridge, suggests that mondegreens are “the result of the brain’s attempts to make sense by filling in the gaps when it cannot clearly determine what it is hearing.”
We’ve all had the embarrassing experience of mistaking the lyrics of a popular song. Sometimes there’s a need to correct a friend or child’s hilariously misinterpreted verse or phrase in a sing-along. Just as surprising (or confusing) is when mondegreens are used to deliberately encode a phrase or bemuse the listener, as in the case of reverse mondegreens. There are also numerous examples where a mondegreen becomes collectively accepted as the original!
Our sometimes buggy inability to grasp or interpret words can be easily demonstrated with a game of Chinese Whispers (Telephone in North America). This involves consecutively repeating a whispered sentence to produce successive mondegreens that gradually and inevitably distort the original sentence.
Another closely associated linguistic term, oronym, refers to a pair of phrases that are homophonic. One example is “ice cream” and “I scream,” as in, “I scream; you scream; we all scream for ice cream.” “Four Candles,” a comedy sketch from the British show, The Two Ronnies, is built entirely around oronyms and begins when a customer’s request for “fork handles” is misheard as “four candles.”
Unlike oronyms, mondegreens don’t hold so strictly to homophonic phrases. Instead, a befuddled brain will fill the gap with even illogical nonsense and ignore any cognitive dissonance. This can make mondegreens surprisingly silly but serves to satisfy the listener’s need for some kind of meaning.
The Star Spangled Banner, with its howling verses, is at a high risk for mondegreens. The very first line, “O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light” has been accidentally and deliberately misinterpreted as “Jose, can you see, by the donzerly light.” Incredibly, there are people who believe that “donzerly” is a real word.
The archaic language of many Christian hymns is another common source of mondegreens. The most-cited example is “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear” for “Gladly the cross I’ll bear” from the song Keep Thou My Way. Sir Ken Robinson, in his popular 2006 TED talk, relates the story of his son’s stage debut in a Nativity play where he replaces “frankincense” with “Frank sent this.”
Sometimes, a mondegreen in lyrics becomes an accepted standard. Such is the case with The Twelve Days of Christmas. The original song has “four colly birds” where colly means black. Sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, the gifted fowl became calling birds, with Frederic Austin’s 1909 version becoming the stock lyrics for the holiday song.
International travelers may be familiar with the travel guide series, Lonely Planet. Upon first encounter, you may have had a brief moment wondering why a guide promoting world travel would be called “lonely.” In fact, the title of the Australian travel series is a mondegreen of “lovely planet” as sung by Joe Cocker in the song Space Captain.
A reverse mondegreen is the intentional production of words or phrases that appear to be gibberish but actually disguise a logical meaning. A cheery example is the 1943 song, Mairzy Doats. Written and sung to challenge the listener, the lyrics are deliberate mondegreens, made up of oronyms and (seemingly) nonsense words.
Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey. A kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you? (Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy. A kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you?)
Olive, the Other Reindeer is a 1997 children’s book by Vivian Walsh, with the title being a mondegreen of the line, “all of the other reindeer” from the song, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The popular children’s book was adapted into an animated Christmas special in 1999.
Moving into the the realm of adult language, a reverse mondegreen appears in James Joyce’s 1922 novel, Ulysses, in the phrase “if you see Kay” (F-U-C-K). The phrase has been repeatedly used in jazz, blues, and rock songs with the most recent being Britney Spears’, “If you seek Amy.” In the Ulysses quote below, take note of the mondegreens that are “spelled out” in the first and third lines of the stanza.
‘If you see kay / Tell him he may / See you in tea / Tell him from me.’ Ulysses, by James Joyce
Below is a short list of some of my favorite (unintentional) mondegreens. I agree with Sylvia Wright’s assertion that mondegreens are often better than the original lines — which may be why I haven’t LOL’d so much in a very long time!
“Every time you go away/you take a piece of meat with you” (for ” . . . take a piece of me with you,” from the Paul Young song Every Time You Go Away)
“I led the pigeons to the flag” (for “I pledge allegiance to the flag”)
“There’s a bathroom on the right” (for “There’s a bad moon on the rise” in Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival)
“Excuse me while I kiss this guy” (for the Jimi Hendrix lyric “Excuse me while I kiss the sky”)
“The ants are my friends” (for “The answer, my friend” in Blowing in the Wind by Bob Dylan)
“I’ll never leave your pizza burning” (for “I’ll never be your beast of burden” by the Rolling Stones)
“The girl with colitis goes by” (for “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes” in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by the Beatles)
“Dr. Laura, you pickled man-thief” (for the Tom Waits lyric “doctor, lawyer, beggar-man, thief”)
“Take your pants down, and make it happen” (for “Take your passion and make it happen” in Irene Cara’s Flashdance)
“the bright blessed day and the dog said goodnight” (for “the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night” in What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong)
“The girl from Emphysema goes walking” (for “The girl from Ipanema goes walking” in The Girl from Ipanema, as performed by Astrud Gilberto)
“America! America! God is Chef Boyardee” (for “God shed His grace on thee” in America, the Beautiful)
“You’re the cheese to my pizza mine” (for “You’re the key to my peace of mind” from Carol King’s Natural Woman)
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