Whither the Mondegreen? The Vanishing Pleasures of Misheard Lyrics



Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,

Oh, where hae ye been?

They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,

And Lady Mondegreen.

At least that’s what Sylvia Wright thought she heard when her mother read to her from Thomas Percy’s ballad collection, Reliques. The last line is actually “and laid him on the green,” but her mistake proved fortuitous, as it led Wright to coin the marvelous and useful word “mondegreen,” which means a misheard phrase—most commonly in the lyrics of a song.

I was surprised to discover that Wright proposed the term all the way back in 1954, in a Harper’s essay called “The Death of Lady Mondegreen.” I only discovered the word in the past year, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary didn’t see fit to include it until 2008. Little did Wright realize how common the phenomenon would become in just a few short years. The advent of rock ‘n’ roll ushered in the golden age of the mondegreen, as loud guitars, uncouth diction, and primitive production techniques all conspired to render lyrics unintelligible—and, importantly, to stimulate the listeners’ inventive powers. “The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens,” Wright wrote, “…is that they are better than the original.”

I’m not sure they’re better, but they’re usually more amusing, and invariably dirtier. The Surrealists, not to mention Sigmund Freud, would have had some choice things to say about them.

Some of the venerable classics include:

  • “’Scuze me while I kiss this guy.” (“’Scuze me while I kiss the sky,” Jimi Hendrix, “Purple Haze.”) This points to what is probably the cognitive basis of most mondegreens:  the translation of unfamiliar word combinations into more recognizable terms. “Kiss this guy” is a much more logical and common locution than the poetic “kiss the sky,” and so our brain defaults to the familiar pattern.
  • “There’s a bathroom on the right.” (“There’s a bad moon on the rise,” Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Bad Moon Rising.”) Although I still find it hard to believe that anyone truly thinks those are the lyrics, the weight of anecdote is against me, and it remains one of the most frequently cited mondegreens. John Fogerty has been known to sing it that way in concert just to mess with people.
  • “Life will be ecstasy / You and me and Leslie.” (“You and me endlessly,” The Young Rascals, “Groovin’”.) Here we see the hazards of lyrics that don’t scan. Because the melody forces the singer to put undue emphasis on the second syllable of “endlessly,” countless people thought The Young Rascals were extolling the virtues of a ménage a trois.
  • “Wrapped up like a douche, another runner in the night.” (“Revved up like a deuce,” Manfred Mann by way of Bruce Springsteen, “Blinded By the Light.”) It really does sound to all the world like “douche.” Didn’t anybody tell them?

And now, a few from my own experience:

  • A grade school friend insisted that the “electric boots” referenced in Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” were, in fact, “electric boobs.”
  • “…and the negroes tap their feet” was my father’s unfortunate and rather shocked mishearing of “bring a nickel, tap your feet” in Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner.” (“I like that song, but I was surprised at that line about the negroes…”)
  • People always assumed the worst about punk lyrics. One acquaintance interpreted “bloody red eyes go” from X’s “Nausea” as “bloody red asshole”—and one of my brothers,  upon hearing The Clash’s “Rudy Can’t Fail,” went around disparagingly singing it as “Cooties From Hell.”
  • I don’t remember who interpreted the line “We, knee-skinned and river red” from R.E.M.’s “Cuyahoga” as being something about “weenie skin,” but I’m now incapable of hearing it any other way.

And then there’s the long and curious saga of “Louie, Louie.” In what sounds like a case of life imitating Mad Magazine, The Kingsmen’s beloved 1963 hit drew the attention of the F.B.I. after word got around that its famously garbled lyrics were dirty. Actually, The Kingsmen stayed relatively faithful to the G-rated, calypso-style lyrics of Richard Berry’s 1955 original, but the song’s West Indian patois and singer Jack Ely’s slurred diction allowed scores of adolescent mouth-breathers to imagine scandalous interpretations (including my personal favorite, “I felt my boner in her hair”). The governor of Indiana banned the single, as did numerous radio stations across the country; outraged parents brought the matter to the attention of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. After a two-year investigation, the feds eventually admitted defeat, declaring the song “unintelligible at any speed.”

I fear that the internet, which has relieved life of so much of its mystery, may spell the end of the mondegreen. In days of yore, if you didn’t have a lyric sheet, you were forced to do the best you could by pressing your ear up to the speaker and wearing the record smooth with repeated playings. Now, the most intractable lyrical mysteries can be resolved with a few clicks, and our imaginations are all the poorer for it.

My oddest experience with misheard lyrics could be considered a kind of reverse mondegreen.  The British post-punk band Wire are notorious for their oblique lyrics, and after listening repeatedly to their song “A ‘Serious’ of Snakes,” I began to sing along. Not being sure of the words, I made up my own to serve as placeholders: “Y’tulip, y’pea-brained earwig, y’bunk, y’silver-tongued shnake.”

Realizing that those couldn’t possibly be the real words, I eventually consulted the lyric sheet…and that’s exactly what they were.