What’s It Called When You Misinterpret Lyrics?

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What is a mondegreen?

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 maybe you’ve unironically belted out “Excuse me while I kiss this guy,” instead of Jimi Hendrix’s intended lyrics, “Excuse me while I kiss the sky.”

A word or a phrase resulting from mishearing another word or phrase (especially in a song or poem) is a common phenomenon known as a
mondegreen
. A mondegreen typically sounds like the original phrase, (i.e., they’re homophonous) but the meaning is often entirely changed—with presumably amusing results.

Mondegreens aren’t confined to songs and poetry; they can also refer to other types of speech, like mistaking the sarcastic saying “Thank you, Captain Obvious” with “Thank you, Katherine Obvious.”

What are malapropisms and eggcorns?

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.” One ready example is to “dance the flamingo” instead of “dance the flamenco.”

Nor should mondegreens be confused with
eggcorns
, “a word or phrase that is a seemingly logical alteration of another word or phrase that sounds similar and has been misheard or misinterpreted.” Where malapropisms tend to be obviously ridiculous, an eggcorn can be a plausible variant of the original phrase, often working in the same context. A common eggcorn is “old wise tale” for the more canonical “old wives’ tale.”

Where did the word mondegreen come from?

So, why do we call these misinterpretations mondegreens? The term is itself a mondegreen. Sylvia Wright, an American author, coined it after a phrase she recalled mishearing as a young girl. Wright reportedly believed the first stanza to “The Bonnie Earl O’Moray,” a 17th century ballad, 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, “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.

What are some more examples of mondegreens?

Mondegreens can often be a great source of entertainment. For example, Pearl Jam’s 1990s hit single, “Jeremy,” features the chorus, “Jeremy spoke in class today,” which was popularly confused as “Jeremy smokin’ grass today.”

Children in general prove to be 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” (“for which it stands”), “invisible” (“indivisible”), and “liver tea and just us four, all” (“liberty and justice for all”).

Speaking of children saying cute stuff: in 2013, a six-second video on the social-media platform Vine went viral for its portrayal of a young girl adorably misinterpreting Lorde’s lyric “You can call me Queen Bee” from “Royals” as “You can call me green beans.”

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