Have you ever been shocked to discover that the words of a song you’ve heard countless times were not the actual lyrics—or even close? Would you also be shocked to know there is a term for this kind of error? A mondegreen is a word or phrase that results from mishearing or misinterpreting something auditory, such as a song. The listener substitutes words that sound similar to the misheard content and that seem sufficiently plausible in context.
A famous mondegreen is “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” (instead of “Excuse me while I kiss the sky,” a line from Jimi Hendrix’s song “Purple Haze”). Another oft-cited musical mondegreen is “There’s a bathroom on the right” (rather than “There’s a bad moon on the rise,” Creedence Clearwater Revival). Examples of mondegreens in everyday language include “for all intensive purposes” (“for all intents and purposes”), “deep-seeded” (“deep-seated”), and “one in the same” (“one and the same”). I am always surprised to find that someone thinks the name of the HBO series about Carrie Bradshaw and her friends is Sex in the City (not Sex and the City).
The word mondegreen is itself a mondegreen. American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in Harper’s Magazine in November 1954. When Wright was a child, her mother would read to her from an eighteenth-century collection of ballads and popular songs. One of Wright’s favorite poems, “The Bonny Earl o’ Moray,” began as follows:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
Wright envisaged Lady Mondegreen as a woman with dark curls and a green dress, her throat pierced by an arrow; she lay at the earl’s side, holding his hand. However, the real fourth line of the verse was not “And Lady Mondegreen” but “And laid him on the green.” In other words, there was no Lady Mondegreen! Wright memorialized her tragic yet nonexistent heroine in the name of the phenomenon she exemplified.
I believe I have proof that a musician succumbed to a mondegreen—in his own song! Duran Duran released the album Seven and the Ragged Tiger in November 1983. Here is the chorus of the second track, “New Moon on Monday” (scanned from the inner sleeve):
The first few times I heard the song, I mistook “firedance through the night” for “five days through the night”—words that romantically evoked a night so long and full of adventure that it was equivalent to five days. (This line has stumped others, as well.) I caught my mistake, however, while studying the actual lyrics. When the video for “New Moon on Monday” premiered, I was astonished to see that John Taylor, the group’s bassist, seemed to have the same misunderstanding! Near the end of the video, while enthusiastically lip-syncing “And a firedance through the night,” he twice held up his hand as if indicating the number five—as in “five days through the night”!
It seems inconceivable that a guitarist would hear his own song incorrectly, so perhaps I misperceived the gesture and substituted my own interpretation—you know, a new moon.
I love love love that there is a name for this, Karen.
I have a dear friend (whom I will not name) who is guilty of these in almost every conversation.
(She does much more ‘listening’ than ‘reading’ and uses phrases incorrectly because she has heard them but not seen them in print.)
For example, she will say (and type in texts), “That’s not my ammo,” instead of M.O.
Yesterday, I saw someone post that she “hold heartily” agreed with a status on Facebook.
People are awesome.
Thanks for sharing.
Ha-ha! Those examples are great. I encounter this kind of mistake frequently in my editing, so I was also thrilled to discover there was a word for it. (And what a fun word!)
Substituting but one word like ‘ammo’ for ‘M.O.’ is really a malapropism rather than a mondegreen, like when my brother says “One foul swoop.” instead of “One fell swoop.” etc..
I LOVE this, Karen! A childhood friend of mine told me ten years ago that FOR YEARS she thought the Rolling Stones “Angie” was really “I’m in Jail”
Ha! That’s a creative one! Must have been a shock to learn the actual lyric. Thanks for reading. 🙂
I’m so glad to be able to put a term to what I also suffered from in the New Moon On Monday lyric! I found your post, after I was watching that video today, and was surprised to see John Taylor holding up his palm with his five digits facing the camera. Why else would he hold his hand up, if he also didn’t think the lyric was “and the five days through the night”?? — however I also read today that the band was not happy making that video so they were all pretty drunk by the end of filming which is when John was holding his hand up. Perhaps a drunken slip up. Either way, thank you for your fun read!! 🙂
Hi, Shannon! Thanks for your great comment, and for supporting my theory about John’s mistaken interpretation of the lyrics. I’ll have to watch the video again, with the idea in mind that they were drunk; that should add an amusing dimension. 😉 Thanks for reading!
When one hears the inarticulate sounds of the *howling*(uistic) wind outside [“…baith snell an’ keen!” (Rabbie Burns)], making a raucous (b)racket, could this be said a wee(p) bit more’n but a murmuring *moan*degreen
Let’s hear (w)it for home-groan moandegreens!
A most humorous incident occurred in the Australian parliament many years ago and was broadcast on ABC National Radio. I’ll let the former and late prime minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam tell it in his very own words, like only he could, and duly did.
“Never in the House did I use the word which comes to mind. The nearest I came to doing so was when Sir Winton Turnbull, a member of the ‘cavalleria rusticana’, was raving and ranting on the adjournment and shouted: *”I am a Country member”*! I interjected, *”I remember”*. He could not understand why, for the first time in all the years he had been speaking in the House, there was instant and loud applause from both sides.”
I recall another classic mondegreen on Australia’s ABC ‘Law Report’ 12 March 2013, where it appeared in the transcript of the podcast that the transcriber, definitely being no (w)orthographic orphan, must have been away with the fecklessly-forensic fairies. It was about a New South Wales police officer who had callously punched a man in the face and the incident was captured on CCTV in the Ringwood police station. In for a penny, in for pound(ing)…hoon owes? Perhaps whilst wording and wincing, the podcast’s transcriber, instead of typing: “[…] So effectively that the charge was laid for some ulterior purpose…”, s/he put “…for some of teary a purpose.”.
I downloaded “it” again just now and it’s still there verbatim.
No small wonder that courts’ of law transcripts, when (f)adorned with grave errors, are so easily (f)able to get folk wrongfully punished when hardly tomb much gets buried deep in the detail if you dig my meaning. I’d so much like to hear Tell (el Armarna) from someone regarding (s)tone-deaf transforming transcribers being put on deaf row for hears..err..years that I’d be (c)hanging on their every word.
Correction: It was in the Australian state of Victoria and not New south Wales. We here, way out West, tend to lump ’em all together on t’other side anyway and they understand that.
Try to picture in your mind a young inquisitive child graveside for the first time, but witnessing a rushed Catholic burial due to much thunder and lightning heralding that the heavens are about to open; and just as the coffin is about to be lowered into the grave, with everyone wanting to make a mad dash for shelter before the downpour, the priest quickly says: “In the name of the Father, the Son and in the hole ‘e goes!”
Just like the grave, what the kid heard is open to inter_pretation.