A mondegreen /ˈmɒndᵻɡriːn/ 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".
- In songs
- Standardized and recorded mondegreens
- Non English language
- In literature
- In film
- In television
- Other examples
- Reverse mondegreen
- Deliberate mondegreen
"Mondegreen" was included in the 2000 edition of the Random House Webster's College Dictionary, and in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2002. 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 films.
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.
In the essay, Wright described how, as a young girl, she misheard the last line of the first stanza from the 17th-century ballad "The Bonnie Earl o' Moray". She wrote:
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:
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 Jimi 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 national anthem of the United States is highly susceptible (especially for young grade-school students) to the creation of mondegreens, two in the first line. Francis Scott Key's Star-Spangled Banner begins with the line "O say can you see, by the dawn's early light." This has been accidentally and deliberately misinterpreted as "Jose, can you see," another example of the Hobson-Jobson effect, countless times. The second half of the line has been misheard as well, as "by the donzerly light," or other variants. This has led to many people believing that "donzerly" is an actual word.
"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.
A 2010 survey in Britain found that the most commonly misheard lyric was "Call me when you try to wake her" in R.E.M.'s "The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite," which was misheard as "Calling Jamaica." Other misheard lyrics reported in the survey included "See that girl, watch her scream, kicking the dancing queen," from the ABBA song "Dancing Queen" ("See that girl, watch that scene, dig in the dancing queen") and "Here we are now, in containers," from the Nirvana song "Smells Like Teen Spirit!" ("Here we are now, entertain us").
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's written structure. This issue is exemplified in controversies over alleged transcription errors in Yale University Press's 2010 Anthology of Rap.
Another example is the song “Blank Space,” sung by Taylor Swift for her 2014 album, 1989. It contains the lyric, "got a long list of ex-lovers," which many listeners, including Swift's mother, hear as "all the lonely Starbucks lovers."
Standardized and recorded mondegreens
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 lightning 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 title of the film La Vie en rose depicting the life of Édith Piaf can be mistaken for "L'Avion rose" (The pink airplane).
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 were 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 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).
A 2010 internet phenomenon in Hungary called Bikicsunáj, related to a mishearing of the German band Alphaville's song Big in Japan, became a mondegreen itself in Hungarian.
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.
A Monk Swimming by author Malachy McCourt is so titled because of a childhood mishearing of a phrase from the Catholic rosary prayer, Hail Mary. "Amongst women" became "a monk swimmin'".
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 "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".
The enigmatic title of the 2013 film Ain't Them Bodies Saints is actually a misheard lyric from a folk song; director David Lowery decided to use it because it evoked the "classical, regional" feel of 1970s rural Texas.
Mondegreens have been used as a story element in advertising campaigns, including:
The traditional game Chinese whispers ("Telephone" in the United States) involves mishearing a whispered sentence to produce a mondegreen.
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:
The clue to the meaning is contained in the bridge:
Mairzy Doats is made up of oronyms. 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:
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.