Mondegreen: Wikis


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A mondegreen is the mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase, typically a standardized phrase such as a line in a poem or a lyric in a song, due to near homophony, in a way that gives it a new meaning.[1][2]


The American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in her essay "The Death of Lady Mondegreen," published in Harper's Magazine in November 1954.[3] In the essay, Wright described how, as a young girl, she misheard the final line of the first stanza from the 17th-century ballad "The Bonnie Earl O' Murray." 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".

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")

"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.[4][5]

Mondegreens should not be confused with soramimi, which are songs that produce different meanings from those originally intended when interpreted in another language.


Examples in song lyrics

  • The top 3 mondegreens submitted regularly to mondegreen expert Jon Carroll are:[1]
  1. "Gladly, the cross-eyed bear[3] (from the line in the hymn "Keep Thou My Way" by Fanny Crosby, "Kept by Thy tender care, gladly the cross I'll bear")[6] Carroll and many others quote it as "Gladly the cross I'd bear".
  2. 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")
  3. 'Scuse me while I kiss this guy (from a lyric in the song "Purple Haze", by Jimi Hendrix: "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky").
Both Creedence's John Fogerty and Hendrix eventually capitalized on these mishearings and deliberately sang the "mondegreen" versions of their songs in concert.[7][8][9]
  • When Bob Dylan offered marijuana to The Beatles, he was surprised to find they had not tried it before; he had misheard the lyric "I can't hide" in "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as "I get high".[10]
  • The Joni Mitchell cover of the Lambert, Hendricks & Ross song "Twisted" includes a mondegreen: the original lyric They all laughed at A. Graham Bell was misheard and subsequently recorded by Mitchell as They all laugh at angry young men.[11]
  • The song "Sea Lion Woman," originally recorded in 1939 by Christine and Katherine Shipp, is another famous mondegreen, as it 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."[12]
  • The song "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," originally recorded in 1969 by The Band was, when covered by Joan Baez in 1971, full of mondegreens. For example, she changes the narrator, Virgil Caine, from a farmer to a laborer with the words,"Like my father before me, I'm a working man." The original lyrics were, "Like my father before me, I will work the land." Baez later admitted that she sang the song the way she heard it on a recording, and had never seen the printed lyrics.[citation needed] The Baez version later reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
  • Mondegreens characteristically arise in misheard lyrics, whether in song or chant. Children, unused to the word 'hallowed', often hear the second line of the Lord's Prayer as "Our Father, Who Art in Heaven / Harold be thy name". So common is this mondegreen, it was used as the title of a light-hearted devotional work.[13]

Examples in literature

  • In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mr Tumnus mishears Lucy and so supposes that she comes from the city of War Drobe in the country of Spare Oom.[14]
  • In The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, reference is made to Laura Wingfield's bout with pleurosis during high school. At the time, Laura entertained timid but romantic feelings for Jim, who upon asking about her absence, mistakenly hears her say "blue roses" and carelessly adopts the moniker for her.
  • In The World According to Garp by John Irving, Garp's young child is warned to beware of the undertow while bathing in the sea. Garp realizes later that the child had understood "Under Toad" and pictured a mischievous creature under the sea surface.
  • In Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary, Ramona is taught to sing the U.S. national anthem, and mishears the opening line ("O! say can you see by the dawn's early light") as "Oh say, can you see, by the dawnzer's lee light". This leads her to believe that a dawnzer is some form of a lamp, and when Beezus (her sister) is having trouble seeing to read, Ramona suggests that she turn it on, to much confusion.
  • One of Ed McBain's novels is entitled Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear.
  • In children's literature, a book entitled A Little Pigeon Toad, written and illustrated by the actor Fred Gwynne, offers amusing examples of how children can misinterpret words and phrases.

Examples in television

Examples in politics

The indian tribe Ojibway (sometimes said as "ojibwa") was mutated into "Chippewa" by white settlers in Michigan. Thus Chippewa County was officially designated in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Reverse mondegreen

  • Mairzy Doats, a 1943 novelty song by Milton Drake, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston, works the other way around. The lyrics are already a mondegreen, and it's 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 (or, if you prefer, "wouldn't chew").
The clue to the meaning of the words is contained in the bridge:
If the words sound queer and funny to your ear, a little bit jumbled and jivey,
Sing "Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy."
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.

Deliberate mondegreen

See also


  1. ^ a b Jon Carroll. "Mondegreens Ripped My Flesh". San Francisco Chronicle. 
  2. ^ The Word Detective: "Green grow the lyrics" Retrieved on 2008-07-17
  3. ^ a b 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."
  4. ^ Dictionary adds new batch of words. July 7, 2008.
  5. ^ NBC News: Merriam-Webster adds words that have taken root among Americans
  6. ^ Frances Crosby. ""Keep Thou My Way"". The Cyber Hymnal. Retrieved 2006-09-06. 
  7. ^ "Did Jimi Hendrix really say, "'Scuse me, while I kiss this guy?"". Retrieved 2007-12-18. 
  8. ^ "The Guardian," Letters April 26, 2007
  9. ^ CCR/John Fogerty FAQ. This can be heard on his 1998 live album Premonition.
  10. ^ Miles, Barry; Keith Badman (2001). The Beatles Diary: The Beatles years. Omnibus Press. p. 165. ISBN 0711983089. 
  11. ^ "Song Lyrics: Twisted". Retrieved 2008-05-09. 
  12. ^ "A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings". Retrieved May 14, 2009. 
  13. ^ "M.McCourt, "Harold Be Thy Name"". Retrieved Jan 15, 2010. 
  14. ^ Leland Ryken, Marjorie Lamp Mead, A reader's guide through the wardrobe, p. 32, 
  15. ^ "Spicks and Specks, Episode 15". 
  16. ^ Jesse Sheidlower (March 19, 2009), "If You Seek Amy's Ancestors", Slate, 
  17. ^

Further reading

  • Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy — Gavin Edwards, 1995. ISBN 0-671-50128-3
  • When a Man Loves a Walnut — Gavin Edwards, 1997. ISBN 0-684-84567-9
  • He's Got the Whole World in His Pants — Gavin Edwards, 1996. ISBN 0-684-82509-0
  • Deck The Halls With Buddy Holly — Gavin Edwards, 1998. ISBN 0-060-95293-8
  • Chocolate Moose for DinnerFred Gwynne, 1988. ISBN 0-671-66741-6

External links

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