bout Those Myth-Heard Lyrics: An Introduction to Mondegreens
By Bob Grant on April 7, 2012
Have you been wondering what idiot would name a kid’s song “He’s Got the Whole World in His Pants?” If so, you’ve fallen victim to one of many examples of mondegreens.
The word mondegreen may be new to you, but if you’ve ever been embarrassed to learn that you’ve been mangling a song’s lyrics for years (and who hasn’t?) you’ve perpetrated one. We’ve presented tales of myth-heard song lyrics before, but this week we reveal how these “slips of the ear” got their official name.
Poor Lady Mondegreen
No matter how good your hearing is, you’ve surely misinterpreted a song or poetic performance at some point in the past. Until writer Sylvia Wright introduced the world to mondegreens in 1954, there was no official term for such aural accidents.
Wright’s offering derives from a childhood mishearing of the 17th century Scottish poem “The Bonny Earl of Murray,” often read to her by her mother:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl of Murray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
While such an ending may appeal to fans of romantic tragedy, a la Romeo and Juliet, in truth there was no such Lady. The last line actually reads, “…and laid him on the green.” And so from a misunderstood line of an obscure ballad comes a term that stands for something always occurring, but never previously defined.
If you think the word “mondegreen” is unusual, consider these clunkers suggested as alternatives: “disclexia” and “Musical Ear Disturbance.” The word “lyricosis” is better, and certainly more descriptive, but it lacks the wonderful euphony of Ms. Wright’s lyrical creation.
Bohemian Rap City
Linguists blame something called “homophony,” or similarity of sounds, for misheard creations like erroneous song lyrics or so-called “eggcorns,” which are scrambled idioms, if you will, rather than verses.
Mondegreens aren’t limited to English; these and similar misunderstandings are inevitable in any language, since there are only so many different and individual verbal sounds that human beings are capable of producing. Add in malfunctioning ears and ambient noise, and the conditions are ripe for all kinds of hilarious fun.
When a Man Loves a Walnut
According to one six-year-old, for example, the central message of the song “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is that “life’s a butter dream.” And more than one person has wondered why that girl wore raspberries and grapes in the old song “Raspberry Beret” by the Artist Once Again Known as Prince.
For heaven’s sake, they even creep into old Christmas standards. Some of us have yet to figure out what “police naughty dog” has to do with “Feliz Navidad” in the José Feliciano song of that name, any more than we understand why, exactly, someone should “sleep in heavenly peas.” That’s mondegreens for ya!