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A mondegreen is the mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase, typically a standardized phrase such as a line in a poem or a lyric in a song, due to near homophony, in a way that yields a new meaning to the phrase.


The American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term mondegreen in her essay "The Death of Lady Mondegreen," which was published in Harper's Magazine in November 1954. In the essay, Wright described how, as a young girl, she misheard the final line of the first stanza from the 17th-century ballad "The Bonnie Earl O' Murray." 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 Amurray,
:And Lady Mondegreen.

The actual fourth line is "And laid him on the green". As Wright explained the need for a new term, "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".

Other examples Wright suggested are:

  • Surely Good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life ("Surely goodness and mercy…" from Psalm 23)

  • The wild, strange battle cry "Haffely, Gaffely, Gaffely, Gonward." ("Half a league, half a league,/ Half a league onward," from "The Charge of the Light Brigade")

Mondegreen was included in the 2000 edition of the Random House Webster's College Dictionary. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary added the word in 2008.

It should not be confused with soramimi, which are songs that produce different meanings from those originally intended, when interpreted in another language.


Examples in song lyrics

  • The "top 3" mondegreens submitted regularly to mondegreen expert Jon Carroll are:

# "Gladly, the cross-eyed bear (from the line in the hymn "Keep Thou My Way" by Fanny Crosby, "Kept by Thy tender care, gladly the cross I'll bear") Carroll and many others quote it as "Gladly the cross I'd bear".
# There's a bathroom on the right (the line at the end of each verse of "Bad Moon Rising" by Creedence Clearwater Revival: "There's a bad moon on the rise")
# Scuse me while I kiss this guy (from a lyric in the song "Purple Haze", by Jimi Hendrix: "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky").

Both Creedence's John Fogerty and Hendrix eventually capitalized on these mishearings and deliberately sang the "mondegreen" versions of their songs in concert.

  • "Tell the Huns it's time for me" (from the song "Beneath the Lights of Home (In a Little Sleepy Town)" sung by Deanna Durbin in Nice Girl? (1941): "Turn the hands of time for me") on the BBC radio programme Quote Unquote in 2002.

  • The Joni Mitchell cover of the Lambert, Hendricks & Ross song "Twisted" includes a mondegreen: the original lyric They all laughed at A. Graham Bell was misheard and subsequently recorded by Mitchell as They all laugh at angry young men.

  • The song "Sea Lion Woman," originally recorded in 1939 by Christine and Katherine Shipp, is another famous mondegreen, as it was performed by Nina Simone under the title "See Line Woman" and later by Feist as "Sealion". According to the liner notes from the compilation "A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings," the actual title of this playground song might also be "See [the] Lyin' Woman" or "C-Line Woman."

Examples in literature

  • In The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, reference is made to Laura Wingfield's bout with pleurosis during high school. At the time, Laura entertained timid but romantic feelings for Jim, who upon asking about her absence, mistakenly hears her say "blue roses" and carelessly adopts the moniker for her.

Examples in television

Reverse mondegreen

  • Mairzy Doats, a 1943 novelty song by Milton Drake, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston, works the other way around. The lyrics are already a mondegreen, and it's up to the listener to figure out what they mean. The refrain of the song repeats nonsensical sounding lines:
:Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
:A kiddley divey too, wooden shoe (or, if you prefer, "wouldn't chew").
The clue to the meaning of the words is contained in the bridge:
:If the words sound queer and funny to your ear, a little bit jumbled and jivey,
:Sing "Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy."
The listener can figure out that the last line of the refrain is "A kid'll eat ivy, too; wouldn't you?", but this line is sung only as a mondegreen.

Deliberate mondegreen

In the Britney Spears song "If U Seek Amy," the lyric All of the boys and all of the girls are begging to if you seek Amy can easily be misheard as All of the boys and all of the girls are begging to F-U-C-K me. This resembles previous uses of the lyric "if you see Kay", employed by blues pianist Memphis Slim in 1963, R. Stevie Moore in 1977, April Wine on their 1982 album Power Play, the Poster Children in 1990, and Turbonegro in 2005, as well as a line from James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses.

See also


  1. The Word Detective: "Green grow the lyrics" Retrieved on 2008-07-17
  2. Drawings by Bernarda Bryson. Reprinted in: Contains the essays "The Death of Lady Mondegreen" and "The Quest of Lady Mondegreen."
  3. Dictionary adds new batch of words. July 7, 2008.
  4. NBC News: Merriam-Webster adds words that have taken root among Americans
  5. "The Guardian," Letters April 26, 2007
  6. CCR/John Fogerty FAQ. This can be heard on his 1998 live album Premonition.
  7. Quote Unquote, BBC Radio 4, 2002

Further reading

  • Scuse Me While I Kiss This GuyGavin Edwards, 1995. ISBN 0-671-50128-3
  • When a Man Loves a Walnut — Gavin Edwards, 1997. ISBN 0-684-84567-9
  • He's Got the Whole World in His Pants — Gavin Edwards, 1996. ISBN 0-684-82509-0
  • Deck The Halls With Buddy Holly — Gavin Edwards, 1998. ISBN 0-060-95293-8
  • Chocolate Moose for DinnerFred Gwynne, 1988. ISBN 0-671-66741-6

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