What is a mondegreen you ask? It is a misheard song lyric (or other utterance), one where the phonetic components can be interpreted to have an entirely different meaning than what the lyricist intended. Some examples include:

  • “Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear” (Gladly the Cross I’d Bear), from the hymn of that title.
  • “A girl with colitis goes by” (a girl with kaleidoscope eyes), from Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds, by the Beatles.
  • “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” (excuse me while I kiss the sky), from Purple Haze, by Jimi Hendrix.
  • “Who knows what evil lurks in the hot cement” (who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men), catchphrase for the radio show The Shadow.

So, why are they called mondegreens? The term was coined by writer Sylvia Wright in Harper’s magazine in November 1954:

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.

Wright took the name mondegreen from her mishearing the ballad The Bonnie Earl O’Moray as a child:

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, And Lady Mondegreen.

The line correctly reads:

They have slain the Earl of Moray
And laid him on the green.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)

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