mondegreens

A mondegreen is a misheard lyric, saying, catchphrase, or slogan. The word was coined by the Scottish writer Sylvia Wright in a 1954 article in Harper’s Magazine. There she wrote that, as a child, she had misinterpreted the lyrics of a Scottish ballad called “The Bonny Earl of Moray.” One of the lines in the song is this:

“They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray and laid him on the green.”

She had thought it went, “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray and Lady Mondegreen.”

Indeed, many mondegreens are essentially children’s misinterpretations. Consider the examples just from the Christmas season. A child sings “Silent Night” in this way: “Holy imbecile, tender and mild.” Of course, the actual words are “Holy infant, so tender and mild.” In the same song, “Christ the sailor is born” is a mangled version of “Christ, the Savior, is born.” And “round yon Virgin” can mistakenly become “round John Virgin.” In “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” some have interpreted the true love’s gift of the first day as being “a part-red gingerbread tree” instead of “a partridge in a pear tree.” In “Jingle Bells”: “Bells on cocktails ring, making spareribs bright”—a metamorphosis of “Bells on bobtail ring, making spirits bright.” And in “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” some have thought that there’s a tenth reindeer: “Olive, the other reindeer” (for “All of the other reindeer”).

Many mondegreens occur in transcribed speech. A secretary or court reporter doesn’t quite hear the words and comes up with a plausible guess. “Attorney and notary public” becomes “attorney and not a republic.” “County surveyor” becomes “Countess of Ayr.” “Juxtaposition” becomes “jock strap position.”

Perhaps the most interesting of all, though, are those that result from listening to songs. Often the lyrics aren’t readily available to listeners, and often the lyrics are sung a little indistinctly. So listeners create their own plausible versions, some of which in sheer creativity rival the originals—e.g.:

  • “A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.” (Beatles)“A girl with colitis goes by.”

  • “A Merry Conceit.” (Folk tune)“American Seat.”

  • “Don’t it make my brown eyes blue.” (Crystal Gayle)“Donuts make my brown eyes blue.”

  • “Gladly, the Cross I’d Bear.” (Name of hymn)“Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear.”

  • “Lead On, O King Eternal.” (Hymn title)“Lead On, O Kinky Turtle.”

  • “Livin’ is easy with eyes closed.” (Beatles)“Livin’ is easy with nice clothes.”

  • “Revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night.” (Manfred Mann adapting Bruce Springsteen)“Wrapped up like a douche in the middle of the night.”

  • ” ’Scuse me while I kiss the sky.” (Jimi Hendrix)” ’Scuse me while I kiss this guy.”

  • “Secret Agent Man.” (Johnny Rivers)“Secret Asian Man.”

  • “She’s got a ticket to ride.” (Beatles)“She’s got a tick in her eye.”

  • “Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high.” (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”)“Somewhere over the rainbow, weigh a pie.”

  • “The answer, my friends, is blowin’ in the wind.” (Bob Dylan)“The ants are my friends, it’s blowin’ in the wind.”

  • “There’s a bad moon on the rise.” (Creedence Clearwater Revival)“There’s a bathroom on the right.”

Sometimes a misheard phrase does more than just confuse the listening public. In 1979, Bonnie Raitt recorded Jackson Browne’s lovelorn song “Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate.” As Browne composed the song, one line goes: “I found my love too late.” But Raitt sang this line differently: “I found my love today.” So Raitt’s version is (unwittingly?) less forlorn than Browne’s.

There are websites and books devoted to collecting interesting and humorous mondegreens (many of which, unfortunately, are implausible attempts at humor rather than actual misunderstandings). The leading books on the subject are by Gavin Edwards (including ’Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy [1995], He’s Got the Whole World in His Pants [1996], When a Man Loves a Walnut [1997], and Deck the Halls with Buddy Holly [1998]) and Martin Toseland (The Ants Are My Friends: Misheard Lyrics, Malapropisms, Eggcorns, and Other Linguistic Gaffes [2007]). There are also websites that list mondegreens and make musical lyrics widely available. It is easier than ever to verify a lyric that one might be unsure of.

Although mondegreens were much written about in the late 20th century, only two major dictionaries as of 2000 had recorded the word mondegreen. This is an indication not of the word’s feebleness, but of lexicographic oversight. Many journalists had discussed mondegreens at length, often season after season: for example, Margie Boulé in the Oregonian (Portland); Jon Carroll in the San Francisco Chronicle; Philip Howard in The Times (London); Richard Lederer in the Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.); William Safire and Jack Rosenthal in The New York Times; Elizabeth Weise in USA Today. By the turn of the 21st century, there were hundreds of published references to mondegreens. There’s no doubting the utility and widespread currency of the word—or its legitimacy.

Some of the bungles collected in this book are essentially mondegreens: *beckon call for beck and call; *for all intensive purposes for for all intents and purposes; *hone in for home in; and *to the manor born for to the manner born.

Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner