A Mondegreen Is Not What You Think You Heard
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:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
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.
Collections of mishearings can be found on the Internet and many spring from poetry and song lyrics.
Many a youngster in church of 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 Beatle 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.”
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?"
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:
‘Ah, on that ship,
I dream she there,
I smell the rose,
Ah, in her hair.”
What many people thought they heard was:
“And on that chair
I lay her there,
I felt my b***r,
In her hair.”
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 a 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.”
What happens in the creation of a mondegreen is not fully understood. Sound waves reach the ear 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 then 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.”
The McGurk Effect is explained.
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.