Mondegreens. You may not be familiar with the term but you certainly know what they are – misheard song lyrics. You know, those words you sing that are not the actual lyrics of the song? Yep, that’s a mondegreen!
The term was first coined by American Sylvia Wright in her Harper's magazine piece The Death of Lady Mondegreen in which she recalled hearing the Scottish ballad "The Bonny Earl Of Murray". The line "They ha’e slain the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green" was misheard by a young Sylvia as: "They ha’e slain the Earl of Murray and Lady Mondegreen". Hence the soubriquet mondegreen for a misheard lyric.
Why do these substitute lyrics form so readily in our minds? Probably because mondegreens are homophonic representations, i.e. they have a very similar sound to the actual words, and when the original words are incomprehensible, our innovative brains compensate by devising a replacement word or phrase. Our minds are so adept at this, and the belief so strong, that many people are willing to swear that their mondegreen is the actual lyric.
Hence, in addition to their entertainment value, mondegreens have been the cause of some passionate debates as Houston Press music writer, John Nova Lomax relates. “I was convinced that ELO’s "Evil Woman" was a song about transvestism or a sex change operation called "He Is a Woman" and it took a pretty heated argument with some of my friends back in high school to convince me otherwise.”
Mondegreens are so common that there’s few if any of us who cannot claim to have inadvertently produced one or more of our own at some time in our lives. Children are a particularly rich source of mondegreens, giving new meaning to the words of national anthems, hymns and even the Pledge of Allegiance: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic of witches' stands”. (I wonder, was this a young Christine O'Donnell's version?)
For children learning lines by rote, which is essentially a form of mimicking, the situation is ripe for creative modification. When the real words have little meaning for them, they are unable to distinguish any difference between the original and their own version. In some cases, their innovative modifications are an improvement because to them they make more sense.
The Beatles songs –
Actual lyric: She’s got a ticket to ride and she don’t care
Mondegreen: She’s got a chicken to ride and she don’t care
Actual lyric: Paperback writer
Mondegreen: Piggyback rider
Hymn: “Good King Wenceslas”
Actual lyric: Good King Wenceslas first looked out on the feast of Stephen
Mondegreen: Good King Wences’ car backed out on the feet of heathens
Hymn: “Keep Thou My Way”
Actual lyric: ...gladly the cross I’ll bear
Mondegreen: Gladly, the cross-eyed bear
Hymn: Psalm 23
Actual lyric: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
Mondegreen: Surely good Mrs Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life
“The Start-Spangled Banner”
Actual lyric: O’er the ramparts we watched
Mondegreen: Oh the red parts we washed
Some mondegreens have even been incorporated into recordings. The most famous of these was the Doug Ingle song, "In The Garden of Eden", written for the psychedelic rock band, Iron Butterfly. However, the title words were misheard either by a band member or the studio producers and were instead immortalised as "In A Gadda Da Vida".
The enduring popularity of mondegreens is undoubtedly due to their newly-minted meanings producing often hilarious and very surprising results.
Queen’s Bohemian “Rhapsody”
Actual lyric: Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me
Mondegreen: Beelzebub has a devil for a sideboard
Creedence Clearwater Revival “Bad Moon Rising”
Actual lyric: There’s a bad moon on the rise
Mondegreen: There’s a bathroom on the right
The Rolling Stones “Beast of Burden”
Actual lyric: I’ll never be your beast of burden
Mondegreen: I’ll never leave your pizza burning
Bob Dylan “Blowin’ In The Wind”
Actual lyric: The answer, my friends, is blowin’ the wind
Mondegreen: Dead ants are my friends; they're blowin' in the wind
Alice Cooper “Poison”
Actual lyric: I wanna love you but your lips are venomous poison
Mondegreen: I wanna love you but your hips are a little bit pointed
Mannfred Mann's Earth Band "Blinded By the Light"
Actual lyric: "Revved up like a deuce"
Mondegreen: "Wrapped up like a douche"
R.E.M. “Losing My Religion”
Actual Lyric: That's me in the corner, that's me in the spotlight
Mondegreen: Let's pee in the corner, let's pee in the spotlight
Cold Chisel Cheap Wine
Actual lyric: Cheap wine and a three-day growth
Mondegreen: Cheap wine and a three-legged goat
Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets”
Actual lyric: She’s got electric boots and mohair shoes
Mondegreen: She’s got electric boobs, her mum has too
However, my all-time favorite is this version of the Australian national anthem "Advance Australia Fair":
Australians all let us ring Joyce
For she is young and free
With olden royals and wealth for soil
Our home is dirt by sea.
Our lambs abound on nature strips
In booties stitched with care.
In history's page,
On every page,
Advance Australia Fair.
Enjoy full trains and let us in
Advance Australia Fair!
Whatever their origin, mondegreens seem to be the least embarrassing of all our malapropisms, judging by people's happy readiness to share. In a quick tour of the Net, I found hundreds of examples ranging from the bizarre to the risqué to the laugh-out-loud funny. Please share your own with us and keep us chuckling in tune with your favorite songs.