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A Mondegreen Is Not What You Think You Heard

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

When words get misinterpreted

When words get misinterpreted

Mondegreen Effect

The American writer Sylvia Wright coined the word “mondegreen” in an article in Harper’s Magazine in 1954. As a child, she had heard the Scottish ballad “The Bonny Earl Of Moray” and understood one verse to be:

Some years later, she learned that the last line was actually “And laid him on the green.” She had developed a romantic attachment to “Lady Mondegreen” and decided to memorialize her by giving her name to the mishearing of words.

Famous Mondegreens

Collections of mishearings can be found on the internet and in many spring from poetry and song lyrics.

Many a youngster in church on a Sunday morning has sung about a cross-eyed bear called Gladly. What’s happened is that youthful ears have fallen victim to a mondegreen and mangled the words of the hymn “Keep Thou My Way” which are “Gladly the cross I’d bear.”

Some have misheard the Beatles' “All my Loving” as “All my luggage, I will send to you.” Other Beatles misunderstandings include:

  • “The girl with colitis goes by” should be “The girl with kaleidoscope eyes” from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
  • “She’s got a tic in her eye” ought to be “She’s got a ticket to ride” from “Ticket to Ride.”
Or was it "Sheep's got a chicken to ride?"

Or was it "Sheep's got a chicken to ride?"

Some people seem to think Bachman Turner Overdrive were singing “Makin’ carrot biscuits” instead of “Taking care of business.”

Madonna gets several entries (a diction thing?):

  • “We are living in a Cheerio world, and I am a Cheerio girl” whereas the lyric written was “We are living in a material world, and I am a material girl.”
  • “Last night I dreamt of San Pedro” sounds to some as “Last night I dreamt of some bagels.”

Did Julie London sing "Crimean River" or "Cry me a River?"

Many a youngster has misheard "While shepherds watched their flock by night" as "While shepherds washed their socks by night."

Many a youngster has misheard "While shepherds watched their flock by night" as "While shepherds washed their socks by night."

And, Jon Carroll of The San Francisco Chronicle, collected this chaotic rendering of the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance “I pledge a lesion to the flag, of the United State of America, and to the republic for Richard Stans, one naked individual, with liver tea and just this for all.”

New York Times Columnist William Safire once wrote that Richard Stans (for which it stands) must be the most saluted man in America. Or, it could be the Mexican man who thought every time he heard the American national anthem the crowd was asking "José can you see?"

Mondegreen and the FBI

In December 1963, the song “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen rocketed to the top of the hit parade. The lyrics are simple enough and mostly don’t make a lot of sense although they seem to describe a man at sea yearning to get back to his girl in Jamaica.

The lead singer, Jack Ely, had strained his voice during a gig the night before the recording session and he was wearing braces on his teeth. The quality of the Kingsmen disc was poor which made for many misinterpretations of the lyrics.

What the group sang was:

What many people thought they heard was:

There were many other versions of the garbled lyrics all thought to be disguised obscenities.

Complaints were lodged; the Governor of Indiana had the song banned from his state’s airwaves. Then the dark-suited guardians of the moral code at the Federal Bureau of Investigation took an interest. For two years they investigated, playing the song at various speeds and digging into the backgrounds of the band’s members.

In the end, the FBI was not able to prove that the Kingsmen were subversive anarchists seeking to pollute the minds of young people. So, the FBI produced a 140-page report detailing how they had found nothing untoward about “Louie, Louie.”

Transmission Problems

What happens in the creation of a mondegreen is not fully understood. Sound waves reach the ears and are interpreted by the brain. Everybody hears the exact same sound, but not everybody interprets it the same way.

Background noise, not seeing the speaker’s or singer’s face, and other problems can cause the brain to get a bit confused. It scurries around its synapses to make its best effort at delivering a meaning.

Then, sometimes a delightful little linguistic device called an oronym enters the picture. The spoken word does not have spaces like the written word and sentences tend to run together in a series of continuous sounds.

If you don’t understand Mandarin, hearing it spoken sounds like a non-stop blur of tonal confusion. As we become familiar with a language we learn to divide the words into discreet sounds.

Maria Konnikova (The New Yorker) gives some examples of how oronyms mess us up:

"Eugene O’Neill won a Pullet Surprise . . . In similar fashion, Bohemian Rhapsody becomes Bohemian Rap City. Children might wonder why Olive, the other reindeer, was so mean to Rudolph. And a foreigner might become confused as to why, in this country, we entrust weather reports to meaty urologists or why so many people are black-toast intolerant.”

Bonus Factoids

  • The McGurk Effect is explained in the above video.
  • Some phrases that have become familiar to us were never uttered. Nobody on Star Trek ever said “Beam me up Scotty.” Humphrey Bogart did not say “Play it again Sam” in Casablanca. Dracula never said “I want to suck your blood.” And, Tarzan’s famous pick-up line “Me Tarzan, you Jane” did not appear on the silver screen.
  • English pub names sometimes come from mishearing unfamiliar words. Several pubs are called Bag O Nails, which is a corruption of bacchanal (drunken revelry). Some say the Elephant and Castle pub in London owes its name to a mispronunciation of the Infanta of Castile (a Spanish princess). Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was an Infanta of Castile.
  • “The FBI Investigated the Song ‘Louie Louie’ for Two Years.” Rose Eveleth, The Smithsonian Magazine, May 23, 2013.
  • “A Collection of Humorous Mondegreens.” Dr. Mike Barber, University of Houston, undated.
  • “100 Years of The New York Times: On Language - May 27, 1979; ‘I Led the Pigeons to the Flag.’ ” William Safire, New York Times, April 14, 1996.
  • “Excuse Me While I Kiss This Guy.” Maria Konnikova, New Yorker, December 10, 2014.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor


S Maree on August 01, 2017:

Oh my! I remember singing "Jesus, save your pie for me!" when the grown folks were asking Him to "pilot me!" Mom got a big kick out of that. It took YEARS to live down; she told it to almost everyone. Moms . . . gotta love 'em!

Reminded of James Herriot's excerpt where he was trying to understand a message about a patient. "Smiling Harry Syphilis" was what the housekeeper wrote after a farmer called about a pig that had swine erysipelas. Upon hearing the slurred speech of the farmer, Herriot could understand the confusion.

Wonder if other languages experience such gaffes? A delightful look at or own foibles!

Suzie from Carson City on July 31, 2017:

Rupert......I love this! Once again, you have combined educational and entertaining. I did not know about "Mondegreens," thank you!

Song lyrics are famous for causing this faux pax. I lost count of how many incorrect song lyrics I sang proudly for a very long time, along with my friends! LOL.

As I read this piece, I went back over 2 decades to when a darling child caused such laughter due to "Mondegreens." My friend and I would take our children to the playground often and on the way, my friend would stop for gas. At the time, they were still offering both leaded and unleaded fuel. My friend would pull up, roll her window down and holler to the attendant, "Five unleaded, please." On one of these occasions, she & I were busy gabbing, so the attendant walked up to the window to get our attention. My friend's 4 year old daughter rolled down her window and said, "We want Five ON LETTUCE please." I think we laughed for an hour.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on July 31, 2017:

When second born was very young and it was bedtime story time I asked him what story he wanted. "Neeboo" he said. "What?" I asked. "Neeboo. Neeboo." "I'm sorry Chris I don't understand." That's when first born spoke up from across the hall: "He wants Winnie the Pooh, Daddy."

Ann Carr from SW England on July 31, 2017:

I love these 'misheard' occurrences and this made me smile.

My sister used to ask to hear 'Windy Skies' when she was little; she was referring to 'The Teddy Bears' Picnic' song - 'when you go down to the woods today you'd better go in disguise'! It took our parents ages to work out what she meant.

There's also the song 'You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille', where he apparently has '400 children and a crop in the field'. It is of course '4 hungry children'; thank goodness for that!

Fascinating how the mind interprets what it hears.

Great subject for a hub!