It should be a good word for Scrabble except that it doesn’t have any high value letters, but at least it can be a conversation piece to distract your opponent when you add ‘monde’ to their ‘green’ and they say, ‘mondegreen’; what’s that? .
A mondegreen is a misheard, misinterpreted or misremembered lyric or phrase, often to comic effect. As a result of near-homophony, the line takes on an entirely new meaning for the listener. Why ‘mondegreen’? The word was coined by US essayist Sylvia Wright for her 1954 piece in Harper’s Magazine, The death of Lady Mondegreen. She wrote:
‘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 o' Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.’
It was not until much later that Ms Wright realised the actual fourth line reads:
And laid him on the green.
There was no existing term for the phenomenon of the misheard line, so ‘mondegreen’ was born.
The expression is usually applied to lines from verse, poetry or lyrics of songs. In this posting I’m going to focus on misheard song lyrics, but I’ll mention in passing one of the most famous examples in literature of a mondegreen that comes from misremembering; it explains an otherwise weird book title: The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. Well into the novel, the narrator Holden Caulfield hears a little boy wrongly singing the words to Rabbie Burns’ Comin’ Thro’ The Rye as If a body catch a body coming through the rye, instead of Gin a body meet a body. It leads to an optimistic reverie by Caulfield and is memorialised by Salinger in the ‘catchy’ title.
My first memory of mondegreens (though I certainly didn’t know what they were called at the time) comes from my childhood mishearing of Christmas carols, and how we entertained ourselves in school or church services singing the ‘altered’ versions. We kids thought we were being smart, original and funny when we privately sang to each other our versions under cover of the adult voices singing the proper words, not realising that our mothers and fathers, and probably our grandparents, had done the same thing at our age. Who has not sung the first line of While Shepherds Watched as:
While shepherds washed their socks by night
The full version of the altered first verse is, as I’m sure you’ll recall:
While shepherds washed their socks by night
And hung them on the line,
The angel of the lord came down
And said those socks are mine.
It’s amazing how many carols and Christmas songs lend themselves to amusing mishearings. Among my early favourites were:
Deck the halls with Buddy Holly
Get dressed ye married gentlemen
We three kings of porridge and tar
The tradition goes on even to modern Christmas songs. My daughter recently pointed out to me that the Christmas single by The Waitresses Christmas Wrapping is in fact a greeting to former snooker world champion Terry Griffiths. You’ll see what I mean if you click below for a blast of the chorus:
Another British former world champion was famously featured in a sort of visual mondegreen on BBC TV’s flagship music show Top of the Pops in October 1982. Dexy’s Midnight Runners came on to sing their hit version of the Van Morrison song Jackie Wilson said (I’m in heaven when you smile). However, someone in the production team either mistook the name in the chorus or was having a laugh because the picture projected behind the group throughout the song was not the cool black American r&b singer Jackie Wilson, but the portly, lovable Scottish darts player Jocky Wilson. If you need it, here’s the proof:
Perhaps the most famous pop music mondegreen comes from the Jimi Hendrix classic Purple Haze. Is Jimi singing ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky as the published lyrics suggest, or is it ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy? You be the judge.
Not only can we get confused about pop lyrics, but sometimes convincingly so. For years I thought Dusty Springfield was singing:
You don’t have to say you love me,
Just because you can.
Check out the line below:
Mick Jagger’s vocals in many of the Rolling Stones’ songs lend themselves to plenty of misinterpretation. I defy anyone, without looking up the published lyrics, to make out the full first verse of Get off my cloud. I’ve just this moment had a go, and here’s what I’ve come up with - it all goes wrong for me at the third line:
I live on the apartment of the 99th floor of my block.
I sit at home looking out the window, imagining the world has stopped
And in flies a guy that’s all dressed up like a Union Jack
And I’ve walked by and found that I’ve since turned out a flicker good back
I said, hey you....etc.
Have a listen and see if you can come up with a more intelligible version:
I know I’m not alone in mishearing lyrics. In your own time you might want to check out some of these I’ve heard reported:
From Abba’s Dancing Queen:
See that girl, watch her scream, kicking the dancing queen.
From Abba’s Chiquitita:
Take your teeth out, tell me what’s wrong.
From Elvis Presley’s Hound Dog:
You ain’t pornographic and you ain’t no friend of mine.
From Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights:
It’s me, I’m a tree, I’m a wombat
Oh, so cold at the end of your hole.
From Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody:
Sparing his life for his warm sausage tea.
From Robert’s Palmer’s Addicted to Love:
Might as well face it, you’re a dick in a glove.
From the Ghostbusters title track:
Who you gonna call? Those bastards.
This is just a short selection - believe it or not there is a website dedicated to a comprehensive collection of funny misheard pop lyrics. It’s called, appropriately enough, KISSTHISGUY
From those early years in the carol service to today I’ve been entertained by mondegreens, but I don’t think I’ve laughed louder than when I watched comedian Peter Kay’s The Tour That Didn’t Tour on Channel 4 recently. Towards the end of the show, Peter demonstrates some of the misheard pop lyrics he has come across. Here’s the clip for your enjoyment - trust me, it is hilarious.
If you enjoyed this post you may also enjoy Mind my malapropisms.