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
. It should not be confused with Soramimis
, which are songs that produce different meanings to those originally intended, when interpreted in another language.
The American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term mondegreen
in an essay "The Death of Lady Mondegreen," which was published in Harper's Magazine
in November 1954. 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 Amurray, [sic]
- And Lady Mondegreen.
The actual fourth line is "And laid him on the green." As 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")
The columnists William Safire of The New York Times and, later, Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle have long been popularizers of the term and collectors of mondegreens. They may have been the chief links between Wright's work and the general popularity of the notion today.
In 2008, it was announced that the word had been added to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.
Role in culture
While mondegreens are a common occurrence for children, many adults have their own collection, particularly with regard to popular music
Quite a few mondegreens may be seen in closed-captioned live television broadcasting of impromptu speeches, interviews, etc. (for example, a local news report of a "grand parade" might be captioned as a "Grandpa raid"). The prevalence of mondegreens in this context arises in part from the use of stenotype machines and the need for captions to keep up with the fast pace of programs. This machine is used not to type out words directly as a common keyboard but rather to record the syllables of the words being spoken. Thus, the stenographic recording is a phonetic transcription of the words being spoken. Software is then used to translate the phonetic syllables into proper words. Given some unusual syllabic constructions, and the sophistication of the software, errors come in as the system tries to distinguish where the word break is in the syllable stream. Typically, the software uses pre-programmed information that matches syllable clusters to written forms, then suggests captions from which a human "captionist" chooses. Mistakes may come from inadequacies in the program's recognition capability, from the failure to provide the software with vocabulary specific to the context, from the captionist's own mishearing of the words, or from the need for the captionist to make a decision before an ambiguous statement is made clear by what is said next.
In popular culture
Some mondegreens arise from "false friends" or false cognates
. In both cases a phrase in one language may be misheard as a semi-sensical phrase in another language, called a Soramimi
. The humorous aspect of these has given rise to a music video
genre known as animutation
, in which music in a different language (often Japanese
, although others such as Swedish
exist) is "misheard" into English, and illustrated. Engrish
mondegreens can also occur when English lyrics are reproduced by singers of Asian languages.
This may happen in the opposite direction as well: i.e., English words of a song are misheard, intentionally or not, to mean something else in a native language, often with a humorous effect. An example is a Russian joke in which the song "Can't Buy Me Love" was announced as "кинь бабе лом" which roughly translates as "Throw a crowbar to the old woman".
Examples in song lyrics
- The "top 3" 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, "Kept by Thy tender care, gladly the cross I'll bear") Carroll and many others quote it as "Gladly the cross I'd bear". Ed McBain used the mondegreen as the title of a novel. Also, this mondegreen is paraphrased by the band They Might Be Giants in their song "Hide Away Folk Family" (Sadly the cross-eyed bear's been put to sleep behind the stairs, and his shoes are laced with irony.)
- # 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 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.
- The film "Angels In The Outfield" makes a reference to the mishearing of mistakes "O, say can you see" from The Star-Spangled Banner as "José can you see?". Bill Dana used this mondegreen in a comedy bit as the Hispanic character José Jimenez. Columnist Mike Royko made the same joke about José Cardenal after the ballplayer had recovered from an eye infection. In Beverly Cleary's children's novel Ramona the Pest, Ramona refers to the "Dawnzer lee light" (dawn's early light).
- In Stevie Nicks' song Edge of Seventeen the line "Just Like a White Winged Dove" is often misheard as "Just like a One Winged Dove". The title itself originated from a mishearing of "age of seventeen".
- In an episode of the television sitcom Friends, Phoebe believes the lyric from Elton John's "Tiny Dancer", "Hold me closer, tiny dancer" is actually "Hold me close, young Tony Danza.
- In the CBS sitcom The Nanny, "The girl with kaleidoscope eyes," from the song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" by The Beatles, is misheard as "The girl with colitis goes by."
- "A wean in a manger," using the Scottish word for a baby, instead of "Away in a Manger." Gervase Phinn used "A Wayne in a Manger" as the title of a book about a children's nativity play.
- "Tell the Huns it's time for me" (from the song "Beneath the Lights of Home (In a Little Sleepy Town)" sung by Deanna Durbin in Nice Girl? (1941): "Turn the hands of time for me") on the BBC radio programme Quote Unquote in 2002.
- 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 (the song is sung in a fake West-country accent), 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 only clue to the actual 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."
- From this point, the ear can figure out that the last line of the refrain is "A kid'll eat ivy too; wouldn't you?", but this last line is only sung in the song as a mondegreen.
- 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.
- Mike Sutton, a mondegreen director on YouTube with the username "Buffalax", uploaded several non-English music videos which were edited to include subtitles of the written English approximation of the video's original language's sound. These include Internet memes such as Moskau (originally German), Tunak Tunak Tun (originally Punjabi), Indian Thriller (originally Telugu) and Benny Lava (originally Tamil). The latter, involving the video for Prabhu Deva Sundaram's song, "Kalluri Vaanil" from the Indian Tamil movie, Pennin Manathai Thottu, has occasionally been referred to as "the web's hottest clip" On the Internet, both the terms "Buffalaxed" and "Benny lava" are now synonymous with mondegreens, "words or phrases misheard in ways that yield new meanings.
Examples in television
- A controversial example is found in the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where Donald Duck in a scene chastises Daffy Duck, exclaiming "Doggone stubborn little..." Donald's quacks have frequently been misheard as "God damn stupid nigger", resulting in a hard-to-put-down urban legend.
- The games Mad Gab and Babble-On feature mondegreens as puzzles for players to solve.
Examples in languages other than English
"Naturally, mondegreens are a universal phenomenon. They often occur with songs taught to groups of children by nannies or teachers. An Israeli example is mukhrakhím liyót saméakh
‘We must be happy’ 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). Thus, a foreigner interested in learning the original song had better not ask an Israeli for its lyrics. Consider also the ‘non-phonetic mondegreen’ (employing ‘mondegreen’ more broadly) with the Israeli children’s song úga, úga, úga, bámagal nakhúga
. The original meaning is ‘Round, round, round, let us move in a circle’ but it is interpreted by most Israeli children as the homophonous ‘cake, cake, cake, let us move in a circle’, cf. Israeli [Hebrew] ugá
‘cake’ (note that úga
‘round, roll, draw a circle! (masculine, singular)’ is outdated). This song might have made many Israeli children perceive the default, unmarked cake as round – like Yiddish kúgļ
‘kugel, kind of pudding’ (popularly etymologized as Israeli [Hebrew] keigul
‘like a circle’) and Yiddish shtrúdļ
‘strudel, type of fruit cake’.
- 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 Dinner — Fred Gwynne, 1988. ISBN 0-671-66741-6