What is a mondegreen?
Ye Highlands and ye Lawlands,
Oh where have you been?
They have slain the Earl O’ Moray
And layd him on the green
So goes the first verse of The Bonnie Earl of Murray, a 17th century Scottish ballad. Now unless you are an aficionado of such things, you might not be familiar with the song. Yet it has made its mark on the English language as well as English literature, albeit inadvertently, by lending its name to an altogether more familiar concept – the mondegreen.
I can hear your scepticism. At first glance, the word doesn’t seem commonplace. Yet, I would bet that it is almost certainly something of which you will be aware, and will probably even have your own examples of – the chances are you just didn’t realize that there was a word for it. A mondegreen is a misheard or misinterpreted phrase, commonly seen in song lyrics where you might sing along happily with words which were never in the original, but which sound like they could have been.
Who decided to call them mondegreens?
The last two lines of the ballad are a perfect example of what we are talking about, as they form the basis of such a misheard phrase, and are the whole reason for the name. In 1954, the American writer Sylvia Wright wrote an article in Harper’s magazine in which she reminisced about hearing the ballad as a child. However, she heard the last two lines of this first verse rather differently from how it was written, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes in the entry for mondegreen:
‘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’ (try saying it out loud).
She went on to say:
‘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.’
Lo and behold, a word was coined. The classic example, and one which spawned a website devoted to the phenomenon, is from the Jimi Hendrix song Purple Haze. The line “Excuse me, while I kiss the sky” has famously been misheard as “Excuse me while I kiss this guy”. Some people have even gone so far as to suggest that Hendrix himself used the mondegreen when playing the song live, something which makes my head spin if I think about it for too long.
They can’t really be singing that, can they?
Whether or not they are better than the original is debatable. Most are certainly funnier. Some might even be, dare I say it, deliberate. The point about them is that, certainly in some cases, you instinctively know that what you think are the lyrics cannot possibly be what they actually are, yet you sing it nonetheless. Recently, we started a discussion on the OED Twitter, inviting followers to tweet in their favourite examples of mondegreens. The avalanche which followed caused much mirth and brought back many memories. Could someone really have thought that John Travolta, while professing his love for Olivia Newton John in the song You’re The One That I Want sang ‘I’ve got heels, they’re made of plywood, and I’m losing my soul’? Or that in Dancing Queen by Abba, we were really being encouraged to “see the meat on the tangerine, oh yeah”?
Bohemian sausages and other foodstuff
A number of people gave examples of a mondegreen from Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, all of which seemed based around a particular theme. The line actually goes “Spare him his life from this monstrosity”, but many budding rock stars among you seemed to be standing in front of your bedroom mirror, hairbrush in hand, singing: ‘spare him his life from this one-sausage tea’, ‘spare him his life for his small sausages’, or ‘spare him his life for his pork sausages’.
In fact, foodstuff does seem to lend itself well to the whole misinterpretation theme. Perhaps Beyoncé really does sing ‘all the single lettuce’ or those 80s pop stars Bananarama really did feel ‘guilty as a cocoa bean’. On a similar note (if you’ll pardon the pun), I really did think that Elton John, in his song Sacrifice was singing about a ‘cocoa heart’.
It seems that whenever a song line is written, a mondegreen is just around the corner.