What’s It Called When You Misinterpret Lyrics?

Have you ever heard someone sing the wrong lyrics to a song? Maybe a child gave the nursery rhyme “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” a new meaning by replacing the line “life is but a dream” with “life’s a butter dream,” or an adult belted out “Hold me closer, Tony Danza” instead of “Hold me closer, tiny dancer” to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” Misinterpreted song lyrics are a fairly common phenomenon, and they’re called mondegreens.

A mondegreen is a word or phrase resulting from a misinterpretation of another word or phrase that we hear. Mondegreens share homophony (meaning they sound like) with the original wording, but often change the meaning of the word or phrase entirely—with amusing results. The term mondegreen is usually applied to misheard song lyrics or lines of poetry, but can also refer to other types of speech. For example, someone might think the sarcastic saying “Thank you, Captain Obvious” is actually “Thank you, Katherine Obvious.”

Mondegreens are not to be confused with malapropisms, “the act or habit of misusing words ridiculously, especially by the confusion of words that are similar in sound” (as in, “dance the flamingo” instead of “dance the flamenco”) or eggcorns, “a word or phrase that is a seemingly logical alteration of another word or phrase that sounds similar and has been mishear or misinterpreted” (as in “old wise tale” for “old wives’ tale”).

So why do we call these misinterpretations mondegreens? The term is actually a mondegreen itself. Sylvia Wright, an American author, coined the term after a phrase she recalled mishearing as a young girl. According to Wright, she believed the first stanza from the 17th century ballad “The Bonny Earl O’Moray” featured two unfortunate aristocrats:

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

The correct phrasing of the fourth line is actually “And laid him on the green.” While Wright gave us a name for this phenomenon in 1954, people have been misinterpreting words and phrases since the beginning of speech.

Children prove an especially entertaining source of mondegreens. Younger students in the United States are known to confuse lines of the Pledge of Allegiance, leading to mondegreens such as “I led the pigeons to the flag” (“I pledge allegiance to the flag), “to the Republic for witches’ dance” (instead of “for which it stands”), “invisible” (for “indivisible”), and “liver tea and just us four, all” (rather than “liberty and justice for all”).

Mondegreens can often be a great source of entertainment. In 2013, a six-second video on the social media platform Vine went viral for its portrayal of a young girl misinterpreting the lyric “You can call me Queen Bee” from “Royals” by New Zealand artist Lorde.

Now it’s your turn! Share some of your favorite mondegreens in the comments below. Which lyrics have you misinterpreted before?