Friday, July 29, 2011


I was reading James Gleick’s new book, The Information, the other day, and came across this new (relatively; it was added to dictionaries in this century) word that struck me as both hilarious and fertile. It’s mondegreen, and it refers to a situation that most of us have experienced at one time or another: You hear a line of poetry or music, and interpret it in your own unique—and erroneous—way. Here’s the type case, recorded by Sylvia Wright in her essay “The Death of Lady Mondegreen,” published in Harper’s in 1954. As a girl, Wright wrote, she misheard the ballad “The Bonny Earl O’Moray,” which her mother would always read to her, as follows:

"Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen."

This made sense to a young girl, until she discovered the real last line:

“And laid him on the green.”

As I thought about this later, it sounded more and more hilarious, perhaps because I heard a mondegreen even more ridiculous when I was a child. It involved the Lord’s Prayer, whose last line (in the Catholic rendering) was: “And deliver us from evil.” Now for some reason, that didn’t make sense to me—I suppose because I knew about delivering things to someone, but what could possibly be meant by delivering me from something, and particularly something like “evil.” What, I was to become a package that the Lord would deliver? Whatever the reason, instead of “from,” I heard “And deliver us strom evil,” which of course doesn’t make sense either, but that’s how I heard it. To my 6- or 7-year old mind, it apparently made more sense. I can’t even remember when I figured out the real words.

It appears that lots of people have mondegreens in their past, and maybe in their present too. Here are some others Wright herself suggested:

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 ").

Wikipedia provides more examples, the first from San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll, whose top all-time favorite submissions from readers include:

“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")

This points to Gleick’s notion that mondegreens have been proliferating more lately due to mass forms of communication such as the internet. Thus, the most misheard lyric of all time may be a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light,” where the line, “revved up like a deuce,” is heard by millions as “wrapped up like a douche.”

What’s behind mondegreens is the simple, but not obvious fact that our perceptions are not passive, but actively constructed by our brains. Our brains constantly seek meaning in what we see, hear, smell, touch. If what we perceive doesn’t make sense to us (at whatever age or level of understanding), then our brains construct an interpretation that fits our understanding or our preferences or our expectations based on the world we commonly experience. Since lyrics in music are notoriously hard to understand, it is often lyrics that get mangled into mondegreens. What may be oddest about mondegreens, though, is what cognitive scientist Steven Pinker notes about them: “that the mishearings are generally less plausible than the intended lyrics.” To wit, “deliver us strom evil.”

Implausible or ridiculous or silly, something about these things just tickles me. Here are some more.

Bennie and the Jets: “She’s got electric boots, a mohair suit.”
mondegreen: “She’s got electric boobs, and mohair shoes.”
Malachy McCourt, from the Hail Mary: “Blessed art Thou amongst women.”
mondegreen: “Blessed art Thou a monk swimming.”
Beverly Cleary’s Ramona on The Star Spangled Banner: “By the dawn’s early light.”
mondegreen: “By the dawnzer lee light.”
“Away in a Manger:” “The cattle are lowing/ The poor Baby wakes”
mondegreen: “The cattle are lonely…”
“God Rest Ye merry, Gentlemen:” “God rest ye merry, gentlemen/ Let nothing you dismay”
mondegreen: “Get dressed ye married gentlemen/ Let nothing through this May.”
“The Pledge of Allegiance:” “I pledge allegiance to the flag.”
mondegreen: “I led the pigeons to the flag.”
“He’s Got the Whole World:” “He’s got the whole world in his hand”
mondegreen: “He’s got the whole world in his pants.”
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds:” “The girl with kaleidoscope eyes”
mondegreen: “The girl with colitis goes by.”

What more is there to say? Perhaps to recommend just a little more ability to laugh at ourselves: We so often get the words, and the world, wrong.

Lawrence DiStasi

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