What is a Mondegreen?

Mary McMahon

In 1954, Sylvia Wright coined the term “mondegreen” to refer to a misheard phrase or song lyric. A mondegreen typically makes some sort of sense, and mondegreens are sometimes more famous than the original songs or statements that they came from. Many people are not familiar with the term, but the word and its origins are so delightful that they bear further investigation.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

The story goes that one of Wright's favorite songs as a child was the Scottish ballad “The Bonny Earl O' Murray,” a song about the life and death of a real Scottish historical figure. At the end of the ballad, listeners are informed that the Earl of Murray is killed in a final couplet: “They have slain the Earl of Murray/And laid him on the green.” Wright misheard the last line as “And Lady Mondegreen,” which changed the meaning of the ballad dramatically.

After being informed that there was, in fact, no Lady Mondegreen involved in the ballad, Wright mused on the nature of accidental mishearings. She penned an essay about it, “The Death of Lady Mondegreen,” which was published in Harper's Magazine. The term might have faded into obscurity, but for the efforts of William Safire and John Carrol, two journalists who regularly featured mondegreens in their columns.

Most people can come up with examples of mondegreens from their own lives, and there are a number of well known mondegreens, such as “'scuse me while I kiss this guy” for “'scuse me while I kiss the sky” in Jimi Hendrix's “Purple Haze.” Others include “she wore raspberries and grapes” instead of “she wore a raspberry beret” in “Raspberry Beret,” a popular 1985 song by Prince. Johnny Rivers' “Secret Agent Man” is regularly misheard as “Secret Asian man,” while the Josés of the world are constantly confused about being asked if they can see in the first line of the Star Spangled Banner.

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Learning that a familiar lyric or quote is a mondegreen can be quite a letdown, since mondegreens often have humorous double meanings. The routine inclusion of song lyrics in album releases has greatly cut down on the frequency of the musical mondegreen, but they do still creep in now and then. Mondegreens in phrases such as “a rocky leader” for “Iraqi leader” are also not uncommon, especially in rapidly delivered news releases. In many cases, a mondegreen relates to food, sexuality, or animals, suggesting that the subconscious may play a subtle role in misdirecting the mind when it comes to listening attentively.

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