Have you see a mondegreen?

I learned something from last Sunday’s New York Times. It made me wonder how often that happens. At roughly $5 a copy, it probably ought to happen more often.

But it happened last Sunday. I learned about “mondegreens.” Maybe you already knew that a mondegreen is a mis-heard line in a song, and maybe even a line of prose. It all began with a lady named Sally Wright, who wrote in a 1954 Harper’s Magazine (some experts say it was the Atlantic) column that she had for years misunderstood a Scottish ballad about the Earl of Moray (some say “Murray”). One verse of the ballad says,

Ye highlands and ye lowlands
O where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl of Moray
and laid him on the green.

Ms. Wright says that she ms-understood the verse for many years. She thought it was,

They hae slain the Earl of Moray
and Lady Mondegreen.

Knowing how feuds go in Scotland, it might well have been that way. But it wasn’t. And apparently that got Ms. Wright thinking about all the other lines that are ms-heard and ms-remembered and she decided that the phenomenon needed a name. Therefore, “mondegreens.”

The New York Times gave only one other example as I remember. It was,

Lead on, O kinky turtle.

I wondered how many readers of the Times would know what the original line was, but it’s certainly an excellent example of the art.

I thought about this for several days. Chopping wood provides a lot of opportunity to think. And after I had thought about it awhile, I decided to research the subject. Ms. Wright had her epiphany in 1954 and my dictionary is not new enough to include such a new neologism. But there’s lots of stuff on line. A columnist in San Francisco has made a specialty of collecting mondegreens and runs several columns a year about them. I think a lot of them are made up. Even more of them are improbable and not very amusing.

But a few at least are up to the original. Consider the following mangled Christmas carols:

Noel, noel, noel, noel,
Barney’s the king of Israel

Good king wants his applesauce
At his feast this evening

Get dressed ye married gentlemen

While shepherds washed their socks at night

It put me in mind of that wonderful comic strip of by-gone days called Pogo. Walt Kelly, the creator of the strip must have known about mondegreens before Ms. Wright. I remember how, at Christmas-time, his characters would sing carols with lines like:

Good King Wenceslas looked down
On his feets uneven.

Deck us all with Boston Charlie
Fa la la la la etc.
Nora’s freezing on the trolley
Fa la etc.

Kelly, however, was not mis-remembering. He knew perfectly well what he was doing. I suspect most of the better mondegreens are like that and not accidental at all. I’m even suspicious enough to wonder whether Ms.Wright made it all up. So here’s my question: have you ever been mondegreened yourself,? If so, in the interests of science, I’d appreciate the information. It would help determine whether I really learned something from the Times or not.


AnonymousNovember 26th, 2006 at 7:29 pm

I’m assuming the one you remember is a hymn, but it’s not coming right to mind. And I assume you’re not counting ones like “lead us not into Penn Station” or “give us today our jelly bread,” which I agree are probably too good to be true. I know I had one years ago, though: there was a pop song called “Baby Face” that had the line “you’ve got the cutest little baby face,” but in one section they sang it really fast in a near-monotone and it sure sounded to me like “you’ve got to kill yourself, baby face.” It was years before I got it right. Not too cheery!

AnonymousNovember 27th, 2006 at 5:47 am

he is trampling down the village where the great giraffes are stored

larryDecember 8th, 2006 at 6:42 am

a link for you:


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