". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Saturday, December 1, 2007


So what's your favorite mondegreen?

What? You say you don't know what a mondegreen is? Well, don't feel bad. Neither did I until last night, when my husband kept me up for over an hour, reading mondegreens to me until I was crying from laughing so hard.

And by the way, you and I actually do know what a mondegreen is, even if we aren't familiar with the term, which was invented in 1954 by a woman named Sylvia Wight. Ms. Wight wrote an article for Harper's magazine in which she related the experience of discovering that for years she had misunderstood a poem her mother used to read to her in childhood. The poem recounts the slaying of an Earl and goes on to tell of how "they laid him on the green," words which Ms. Wight wrongly heard as "Lady Mondegreen." In the article Ms. Wight included several other examples of misheard phrases that she said she would "hereafter call mondegreens." The term stuck, and over the last 50 years there have been numerous articles, books, and now websites devoted to the cataloguing and study of mondegreens.

Some of the best examples of mondegreens can be found in school children's faulty memorization of patriotic songs and recitations. William Safire pointed out several of these in a 1979 column in the New York Times: for example, the singing of "Jose, can you see" instead of "Oh, say can you see" in our national anthem or the pledging of "a legion" rather than "allegiance" to the flag (apparently some people even think that they're pledging allegiance to the republic "for Richard Stans" instead of "for which it stands"). Christmas carols and songs are also mondegreen minefields, where many a child has been known to replace "round yon virgin" with "round John virgin," "one-horse open sleigh" with "one-horse soap and sleigh," or "all of the other reindeer" with "Olive, the other reindeer." (You can find more Christmas mondegreens collected here by Snopes.com, but be warned, some of them contain objectionable language.)

To learn more about mondegreens and access additional links on the topic, check out this Wikipedia article; to laugh yourself silly for hours on end, spend some time at The Archive of Misheard Lyrics, which takes its web address (http://www.kissthisguy.com/) from one of the most famous mondegreens of all time, Jimi Hendrix's line from his song "Purple Haze": "'Scuse me while I kiss the sky," misheard by many as "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy." The Archive accepts mondegreen submissions from the public along with anecdotes about the circumstances under which the submitter discovered his error, and some of the stories are downright hilarious.

Here are just a few of the mondegreens that left me in spasmodic giggles last night:

"The girl with kaleidoscope eyes" heard as "the girl with colitis goes by" (from the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds").

"Hold me closer, Tiny Dancer" heard as "Hold me closer, Tony Danza" and "Count the headlights on the highway" heard as "Count the head lice on the highway" (both from Elton John's "Tiny Dancer").

The repetitive chant "Take a chance, take a chance" heard as "Jackie Chan, Jackie Chan" in Abba's "Take a Chance on Me." (The story that accompanies this mondegreen is rolling on the floor funny, describing the incredulous stares that the submitter received when she observed that Jackie Chan must have been really popular in Scandinavia for Abba to sing about him in their song.)

The more you think about mondegreens, the more pervasive you realize they are. My very own family is a virtual mondegreen factory, with two older children who go around purposely misunderstanding each other in the name of comedy and a 4-year-old who seems to come up with at least one mondegreen per day (a couple of recent ones are "I challenge you to a jewel!" and "Here's a letter from the ghost office").

So it's time to come clean--what mondegreens are part of your past? What songs have you belted out with gusto while taking a shower or driving down the road only to discover (perhaps under embarrassing circumstances) that you had the words all wrong? What sayings or poems did you learn incorrectly? To my church-going friends: what hymns, prayers or liturgy did you think you had memorized, only to discover that the words were not what you thought? (To help you get the synapses firing, here's one I heard recently from a young worshipper: "Thanks be to God" transformed into "Thanks Pizza God.")

If you're so inclined, kindly share your favorite mondegreens (family-friendly, please) in the Comments window, and we'll all enjoy some good belly laughs!


elephantschild said...

My favorite one from the little person at our house is "peter maid" for "pyramid."

Anonymous said...

I read your blog entry yesterday. This morning, after my 5 year old son got dressed in a pair of pants that seemed unfamiliar to him, he asked, "Is this a handy-down?"

Cheryl said...

Thank you both for your contributions! I had hoped for a few more--but maybe my family's penchant for mondegreens is not shared by as many people as I thought!