Mondegreen

mondegreen

A mondegreen [mon-di-green] 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 1954. 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.

A closely related category is ‘soramimi’—songs that produce unintended meanings when homophonically translated to another language. 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 can be described as ‘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 Bonny 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.’

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, neuroscientist 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. 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.

American journalist 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 (discomfort caused by holding conflicting thoughts), 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.’

Two frequent mondegreens in music are: ‘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’) and ”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 acknowledged these mishearings by deliberately singing the ‘mondegreen’ versions of their songs in concert. Rap and hip hop lyrics may be particularly susceptible to being misheard because they are often improvised and frequently lack an official, written version. This issue gained publicity in 2010 over multiple errors claimed in lyrics printed in the ‘Anthology of Rap,’ printed by Yale University Press. ‘Blinded by the Light,’ a cover of a Bruce Springsteen song by the 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’) is frequently misheard as ‘wrapped up like a douche.’

In the lyrics to the opening theme to the FOX animated television series ‘Family Guy,’ after the cast sings ‘Lucky there’s a man who, positively can do, all the things to make us…’ it was widely thought that Stewie Griffin sang ‘effin’ cry’ (or ‘f’in cry’). However, in an interview, ‘Family Guy’ creator Seth MacFarlane stated that Stewie actually sings ‘laugh and cry.’ The theme to later seasons was re-recorded and the actual line is heard more clearly. The mondegreen was referenced by Peter Griffin in the episode ‘Friends of Peter G.’ when he utters to Stewie in a drunken slur, ‘laugh and cry, effin’ cry, what’s the difference?’

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,’ 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.’

Israeli linguist 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’). An 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 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.’

‘Reverse mondegreens’ are nonsensical lyrics that 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: ‘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.

Iron Butterfly’s 1968 hit ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,’ is 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.’

Two authors have written books of supposed foreign-language poetry that are actually mondegreens of nursery rhymes in English. American actor 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), 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 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,’ 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,’ a Hindi expletive.

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