You’ve probably already read, said or heard the word “mondegreen” quite a few times this week — indeed, probably quite a few more times than previously in this Century. As widely reported in the media yesterday and today, it’s on the list of 100 new entries in the latest version of Merriam-Webster‘s Collegiate Dictionary. See, e.g., “Merriam-Webster unveils new dictionary words,” (Associated Press, by Stephanie Reitz, July 7, 2008) which includes definitions for twenty of the new entries. Also, view video from CBS News Early Show (Harry and Tracy Smith); and 69News.
S[n]idenote: As often happens with the annual list from M-W, I find myself wondering “what took so long?” to add terms like “dirty bomb,” “air quotes” and “Mental Health Day” to their dictionary.
Here’s the Merriam-Webster entry for “mondegreen:”
Mondegreen (1954): word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung. From the mishearing in a Scottish ballad of “laid him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen.”
The AP article notes:
Among the best-known modern examples: “There’s a bathroom on the right” in place of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “There’s a bad moon on the rise” and “‘Scuse me, while I kiss this guy” in place of “kiss the sky” in the 1967 Jimi Hendrix classic “Purple Haze.”
Although my friends at Language Log might disagree with my preference, for me, mondegreen falls into the annoying category of neologisms that are not self-explanatory. You need to know the special literary or cultural allusion involved in order to figure out (or remember) the meaning, rather than being able to parse or guess the meaning from the construction of the word. [An infamous example, of course, is "blog", which I have long decried and derided.]
Far more preferable, in my opinion, are words like the closely allied term “malapropism,” which means “the unintentional misuse of a word by confusion with one that sounds similar.” Although it was derived from Sheridan’s dramatic character Mrs. Malaprop, her name was based on the adverb “malapropos,” which was borrowed from the French mal à propos — literally meaning “badly for the purpose.” Even someone with my limited knowledge of Romance Languages could probably guess the meaning of malapropism. Good luck with “mondegreen,” which might mean Green Earth.
You can find a mountain of mondegreens at KissThisGuy.com, “The Archives of Misheard Lyrics,” which is named for the oft-cited off-version of the Jimi Hendrix verse. KTG has been collecting misheard lyrics since 1995. Its viewers have chosen the 100 funniest misheard lyrics of all time.
Jon Carroll, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, is clearly a mondegreen maven. See his article “Mondegreens ripped my flesh,” which links to numerous columns on the topic. At his Center for the Humane Study of Mondegreens, Carroll’s been “toting up the entries and applying the latest statistical correlative methods, even using our toes, to arrive at a semi-definitive answer,” and gives his own list of “most frequently submitted” mondegreens. Carroll notes that:
“This space has been for some years the chief publicity agent for Mondegreens. The Oxford English Dictionary has not yet seen the light, but it will, it will.”
Now that Merriam-Webster has seen the light, Big Ox can’t be far behind. But, Carroll notes a problem with the modegreen genre: You can’t always tell what the “real” lyrics are. Over the years, I’ve noticed that some bands put different lyrics on their liner notes than they actually sing — perhaps to fool radio or parental censors. (Recall that the Rolling Stones sang “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in the ’60s.)
“Mr. Hendrix was himself aware that he had been Mondegreened, and would occasionally, in performance, actually kiss a guy after saying that line.”
We think the video above makes it pretty clear that Hendrix liked to mess around with the lyrics, and on occasion actually did say “‘Scuse me, while I kiss this guy.” Which means this site may not be named after one of the most commonly misheard lyrics after all. Additional stories from readers below support that.
KTG also notes in their FAQs that “Sometimes, the mondegreens are intentional.” For example:
“On the John Laroquette show many years ago, in which he played a bus station manager, there were two cops, one a short woman and the other a rotund middle aged man. The woman once stated that her partner was so food obsessed that he thought the line to the Crystal Gayle song was ‘Donuts make your brown eyes blue’.”
Snopes.com has an interesting and full account of one of the most famous examples of an intentional mondegreen — the supposed “dirty” lyrics to the Kingsmen’s version of “Louie Louie.” Check out the original “Louie Louie” lyrics, by Richard Berry at Snopes.com and here. The Kingsmen‘s version is not noticeably smuttier — according to Snopes and apparently the FBI (a mother wrote to Robert F. Kennedy complaining about the Kingsmen and it seems that an investigation was made; the G-men couldn’t understand a word). Yet, a Modegreenian Myth persists. Snopes.com has the mythical lyrics and explains:
“So it was that the youth of America scored a major coup in 1963 by spreading the rumor that a popular recording of an otherwise innocuous 1956 song about a lovesick sailor’s lament to a bartender named Louie was really all about sex. You had to listen carefully, the rumor went, maybe even play the single at 33 RPM instead of 45 RPM, but if you did, you’d find that “loie Louie” was chock full of smutty lyrics. . . . A more efective means of aggravating the older generation could scarcely have been devised . . .”
Is an intentional or erroneous Mondegreen really a Mondegreen? Do the f/k/a Gang look like philosophers or linguists? We don’t have the answer, but maybe Language Log‘s Benjamin Zimmer will come to our assistance. You are invited to opine, too.
p.s. In a post on Mondegreens, the weblog 2to4aDay courageously confesses today to needing subtitles in order to understand what is being said in a lot of English-language movies. Prof. Yabut now admits that he must do the same (even when not on a treadmill), especially with any movie filled with Brits or Australians (despite all that practice during the British rock-n-roll Invasion of the ’60s). Yabut also notes that he has visual Mondegreens several times a day reading newspaper or web articles. So far, he catches most of them because the meaning suddenly seems nonsensical, but those broken synapses are making it more and more difficult.
Meanwhile, The Gang needs a nap on this muggy July day. Thereafter, we might try to find a haiku or senryu about misheard words.
Much Better Late Than Never: (5 PM): Speaking of my peri-dementia, I had meant to quote from and point to the delightful discussion of mondegreens in the Wordsmith A Word A Day column of Dec. 20, 2000. For example:
“Face it, you have been guilty of it since early childhood. Beginning with the nursery rhymes you heard on the playground to the national anthem you recited in school to crooning with the love songs on the radio, you have been misinterpreting and repeating them. Now you know there is a word for it and that you are not alone. Luckily there are no Mondegreen Police or we would all be behind bars. No matter what your native tongue, chances are you
have experienced mondegreens in your language.”
The folks at AWAD were absolutely correct: “Whether you consider mondegreens a case of aural dyslexia or a variant of Freudian slip, the results are often much more fascinating than the original matter.”
update (July 15, 2008): Thanks to radio host Don Weeks, of WGY.com, I learned of this great “misheard lyrics” version of Joe Cocker singing “A Little Help from My Friends” at Woodstock. Fertile ground indeed for Montegreens (with captioning “for the clear-headed” who might not have caught them all). more uppadate (July 16, 2008): See our “joe cocker: modegreen maven.”
crackling beach fire —
we hum in place of words
we can’t recall
orig. … by Michael Dylan Welch – The Heron’s Nest (Dec. 2004)
slush from the windshield–
radio love song
………. by Alice Frampton – The Heron’s Nest (May 2002)
copying the nagging
in the thatched house…
.. by Kobayashi Issa, translated by David G. Lanoue
I wander the garden
… by David G. Lanoue – from Walking the Same Path (HSA Memb. Anthology 2004)
an old song
in our second language
……….. by Peggy Lyles – To Hear the Rain (Brooks Books, 2002)