Mondegreens: A Short Guide

My first misheard lyric came at the advanced age of six, when I learned to sing “Row, Row Your Boat.” I was convinced that the line after “merrily merrily merrily” was “life’s a butter dream,” rather than the more canonical “life is but a dream.” I wasn’t sure what visions of dairy products had to do with a boat trip, but I didn’t have the courage to ask anybody.

Eventually my mistake was discovered in an elementary-school chorus class, and I suffered the humiliation that can only be experienced in elementary-school chorus classes. But although the shame eventually subsided, the pattern would repeat itself for the rest of my life. Usually, it wasn’t even a question of mulling over the lyrics and then getting them wrong. I would dive straight into a state of ignorance, and only be rudely corrected if I read a lyric sheet or heard somebody else singing the accurate version of a song.

Misheard lyrics come with many alternate names, only some of which form compound nouns when joined with the word “boneheaded.” Some of the names that have been used: Music Ear Disturbance, disclexia, chronic lyricosis, and Litellas (after Gilda Radner’s befuddled Saturday Night Live character). The technical term prized by aficionados is mondegreen. If your dictionary doesn’t include “mondegreen,” throw it out and buy a better one.

The term “mondegreen” was coined by Sylvia Wright in a 1954 Atlantic article. As a child, young Sylvia had listened to a folk song that included the lines “They had slain the Earl of Moray/And Lady Mondegreen.” As is customary with misheard lyrics, she didn’t realize her mistake for years. The song was not about the tragic fate of Lady Mondegreen, but rather, the continuing plight of the good earl: “They had slain the Earl of Moray/And laid him on the green.”

Mondegreens can be found in every area of the spoken word, from the record-buyer who asks for a copy the Queen single “Bohemian Rap City” to the schoolchild who is convinced that the Pledge of Allegiance begins “I led the pigeons to the flag.” They tend to be about primal concerns: food, sex, animals. Any misheard lyric is an impromptu audio Rorshach test. It can be alarming to discover that significant parts of our brains want pop songs to cover the lyrical topics of cheese, walruses, and clowns. Songwriters take note: There is a large, untapped market for songs about food.

A good mondegreen lasts for years, and redefines how we hear the song. I had classmates who teased me about my butter dreams well into junior high school. Even when corrected, many people rightly decide that they prefer their version of the song to the one that’s actually considered “correct”–and who would deny that “She wore raspberries and grapes” has more poetry in it that the relatively mundane “She wore a raspberry beret”?

We’ve learned not to pay much attention to the lyrics or rock and pop songs, but rather to let them wash over us and pick out individual phrases and choruses that we enjoy. (Some bands, like Pavement and the Fall, take advantage of our inconsistent ears, and write bitter, gnarled verses in what seem to be cheerful pop songs.) Some people never learn the words to a favorite song–or transmute them into something more to their own taste. My friend Alma liked Billy Idol’s “Eyes Without a Face” because she thought the title was “I supply the fish.” To my mind, this is a good thing, and not just because it lets me put out these collections of mondegreens. Pop songs aren’t Ph.D. dissertations, or instruction manuals: they’re supposed to be heard a million different ways, in a million different contexts. Customization is the only rational response to omnipresence.

So people continue to mangle lyrics, and to send me mondegreens by the bushel, either boldly owning up to their errors or cravenly blaming close friends and relatives for the mistake. And I make every human effort to separate the deliberate mishearings from those of the confused and befuddled; some of the most humiliating mistakes come from the most earnest sources. Misheard lyrics often become family legends, as evidenced by this letter from Daniel Brotschul of Gainesville, Florida: “I’ll never forget singing ‘Paperlate’ by Genesis while in the shower as an elementary school student. I thought it was ‘Paper Lake.’ When I got out of the shower, I was humiliated by my siblings, who mocked me, saying, ‘Look! You’re all wet! You’ve got confetti in your hair! Anyone want to go for a swim in Lake Memo?’”

Some folks get so confused by the lack of articulation in the musical world that they begin to mangle band names, and call Hüsker Dü the inappropriate “Who Skidoo.” This is why people mistakenly refer to Andy Gibb as “Auntie Gibb,” Hall and Oates as “Hollow Notes,” and Sam and Dave as “Salmon Dave.” It doesn’t, however, explain those who few who refer to Bruce Springsteen as “The Chief,” rather than “The Boss.”

Please do not be too quick to judge their errors. To put myself in a more charitable frame of mind, I need only recall my most embarassing mondegreen moment: singing along at the top of my lungs to a Go-Gos single at a party, convinced that the chorus was “Alex the Seal,” not “Our lips are sealed.”

By Gavin Edwards. This essay is adapted from the introductions to ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy, He’s Got the Whole World in His Pants, and When a Man Loves a Walnut.