[ Issue 48 ]

Mondegreens delight Emily Bronto

Allow Bikwil to show you the pleasures of Mondegreens


Harlish Goop does some research and discovers that he doesn't need his ears syringed after all.  Or, if he does, so do we all.

Have you ever misheard some of the lyrics of a song or poem? Perhaps as a child listening to nursery rhymes, biblical recitations or Christmas carols? Nothing to be ashamed of ó almost everyone has had that experience, and most of us donít find out our error for years.

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like ó Harlish Goop


Have you ever misheard some of the lyrics of a song or poem? Perhaps as a child listening to nursery rhymes, biblical recitations or Christmas carols? Nothing to be ashamed of ó almost everyone has had that experience, and most of us donít find out our error for years.

More to the point, did you know that thereís a word for such a misheard lyric or spoken phrase? Itís mondegreen.

I can hear your chorus now: ďThatís a helluva word. Whatís its origin? Itís not in my dictionary.Ē Well, itís not in my OED2 either. Nor at

Why? Firstly: it goes back only to November 1954. Secondly: itís unlikely to be in any but a recent large dictionary or on the Internet (where ďnewĒ words are always proudly flaunted by those in the know). So hereís the story, and for it Iím indebted to all such cognoscenti of neologisms ó including Jennifer Stewart, the mob at Wikipedia, Jon Carroll at SfGate and Daniel Austin and friends at Fun with Words.

The term mondegreen is actually a coinage, almost certainly by a writer named Sylvia Wright (1917-1981) in an American magazine article (The Death of Lady Mondegreen). Thereís some disagreement about her nationality, however: was she British or American? The magazine remains the subject of discussion, too: some say The Atlantic, other have it as Harperís.

As a young child, Sylvia had listened to an anonymous 17th century ballad The Bonnie Earl oí Moray (sometimes spelt Murray), which tells of the death of the disgraced but popular earl in 1592. Like many old ballads, itís very long ó over 60 stanzas, but what concerns us here is the one line

They hae slain the Earl oí Moray and laid him on the green.

In The Death of Lady Mondegreen, Sylvia revealed that she had heard the line as

They hae slain the Earl oí Moray and Lady Mondegreen.

In adult life, Sylvia realised that this sort of error is quite common, and so in the article she suggested that a noun ó mondegreen ó be coined for all such mishearings. The name has stuck, so much so that we now have the series of books by Gavin Edwards: (a) íScuse Me . . . While I Kiss This Guy (And Other Misheard Lyrics), (b) Heís Got the Whole World in His Pants (And More Misheard Lyrics), (c) When a Man Loves a Walnut (And Even More Misheard Lyrics), (d) Deck the Halls With Buddy Holly (And Other Misheard Christmas Lyrics).

Here are some examples of pop music mondegreens reported on the Internet.

First, the line

Waterloo, Couldnít escape if I wanted to [Abba]

has been mistaken for

Portaloo, Couldnít escape if I wanted to,


Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, Peggy Sue [Buddy Holly]

has been misinterpreted as

Britches, britches, britches, britches, Baggy Sue,

and the words

I am a rock, I am an island [Simon and Garfunkel]

have been understood as

I am a rock, I am an onion.

Finally, the phrase

Constant craving [k.d. lang]

has been variously misheard as:

Canít stand gravy,
Constant gravy,
Cross dress craving,
God said gravy,                            
God send gravy.

Mind you, mondegreening isnít confined to popular songs:

Have you got a CD with Bronze Lullaby on it? Itís classical, I think.

A little further afield, many a bookseller or librarian has had to stifle a giggle when asked by a schoolkid something like

Have you got a copy of the Charles Darwin classic Oranges and Peaches?

American readers should remember this recitation:

I pledge a lesion to the flag, of the United State of America, and to the republic for Richard Stans . . .

or perhaps in this form:

I led the pigeons to the flag . . .

Here are some Christmas mondegreens:

Get dressed ye married gentlemen,
Let nothing through this May,

Good King Wencesí car backed out
On the feet of heathens.

On the twelfth day of Christmas,
My tulip sent to me:
Twelve drummers drumming,
Eleven pipers piping,
Ten lawyers leaving,
Nine lazy Hansons,
Eight maids a-milking,
Seven warts on women,
Six geezers laying,
Five golden rings,
Four calling birds,
Three French hens,
Two turtle doves,
And a cartridge in a pantry.

Yes, I know: are all the above genuine mistakes, or are they concocted? They all claim to be fair dinkum, but your guess is as good as mine.

After all, a mondegreen should be an unintentional mishearing rather than conscious word play. Nevertheless, the temptation to make an artificial mondegreen is sometimes too hard to resist. This is the sort of thing we looked at in our musical puns column in Bikwil Issue 18 (March 2000), where some examples might well be called premeditated mondegreens A couple of my favourites:

Stompiní on the Saveloy
Shake My Gland ó Iíve Got Strange-looking Parasites.

In a way, the mondegreen resembles the malapropism. As you will know, the malapropism is named after Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Sheridanís comedy The Rivals (1775). Sheís the one who uttered immortal lines like

I have since laid Sir Anthonyís preposition before her [proposition]

He is the very pine-apple of politeness! [pinnacle]

Sure, if I reprehend any thing in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs! [apprehend, vernacular, arrangement, epithets]

Itís worth keeping in mind that neither malapropisms nor mondegreens would be possible without one key factor.

Iím referring to the slurring of consonants so prevalent in spoken English, which is exaggerated by sound recording/broadcasting or oneís distance from the person singing or speaking.

Hence what occurs when youíre in the lounge-room, say, and someone calls out from the other end of the house. You catch the vowels, but mishear the consonants. Happens all the time at our place ó senior moments galore.

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