Friday, February 05, 2010


by Barbara D'Amato

I've just learned a fine new word. I've needed this word for years and never knew it existed. The word is "mondegreen." A mondegreen is a misheard word or phrase, but not just a simple misunderstanding. To be a mondegreen it has to give a new meaning to the word or phrase and it's best of all if the new meaning is funny.

Although nobody told me, "mondegreen" has been around since 1954 when the writer Sylvia Wright coined it in an essay she wrote for Harper's Magazine. She described her mother reading a poem to her from Percy's Reliques, the 17th century ballad called "The Bonny Earl O'Murray." It went--

"They hae slain the Earl O'Murray
And laid him on the green."

She heard it as:

They hae slain the Earl O'Murray
And Lady Mondegreen."

More than one child has thought the Lord's Prayer went this way, "Our father which art in heaven, Harold be thy name." My father's name actually was Harold, so I found this one very funny.

In the course of reading a lot of manuscripts, blogs, and some published material where somebody ought to have known better, I've run into a few goodies:

An author on a listserve, talking about a book he wanted to summarize: "This is the jest of it."

And yet another who was criticizing a writers net-presence, said, "He is being very short-sited."

And: "Charles was an invertebrate gambler."

And: "Mr. Sander received a plague for salesperson of the year."

A writer referring to the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal in New York said, "This is a real abject lesson." And, believe it or not, a blog referred to Spitzer's "peckerdillo." It's possible that this mondegreen was intentional.

Ed McBain used a childrens' misunderstanding of a hymn "Gladly the Cross I'd Bear" as a Matthew Hope title "Gladly the Cross-eyed Bear."

If you have some mondegreens -- and you must have run into many -- send them in. I jest love them.


Anonymous said...

My favorite is sicko fans. :D

Marcus Sakey said...

I always liked John Irving's "undertoad" for undertow, especially with Garp spending the rest of his life imagining the Undertoad as behind any misfortunes in his life.

Dana King said...

As child, a cousin of mine used to sing in a favorite Christmas carol:

Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God damned sinners reconciled.

Rex Ray said...

In church as a child there was also "The Consecrated Cross I'll Bear," which became The Constipated Cross-Eyed Bear.

My brother always thought the song "Land of the Pilgrim's Pride," sounded better as Land of the Pills Inside.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

In high school I had a friend who thought the phrase "Kyrie Eleison" ("Lord, have mercy" in Greek) was "carry a raisin." He was not a churchgoer--he heard it in the Mr. Mister hit Kyrie, where it makes a certain kind of sense ("Carry a raisin down the road that I must travel...").

Barbara D'Amato said...

Marcus, Dana, Rex, Kevin--thank you. I love these and I hope we get more.

Sean Chercover said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sean Chercover said...

My favorite is found in the Jimi Hendrix song PURPLE HAZE...

"'Scuse me, while I kiss this guy."

Anonymous said...

I bet two out of every three children who sing "Jingle Bells" believe it says, as I used to,

Dashing through the snow,
In a one horse, soap, and sleigh.

Dan said...

I don't have one to submit... I just wanted to thank Dana for my Friday afternoon belly-laugh. That's priceless.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Good one, Sean.

And to anonymous--I had trouble with "Jingle Bells" too as a child. I thought the line was "making spear and sprite." That's kind of holidayish, isn't it?

Sara Paretsky said...

When I was four, I thought my parents were speaking about President Harriet Truman. I also grew up thinking that Miriam Webster had created our iconic dictionary. Maybe the roots of my feminism--the misery on learning the truth....

Anonymous said...

Digital memory,to me, is something that I seemingly will never have enough of. It feels like megabytes and gigabytes have become an inseparable part of my day to day existence. Ever since I bought a Micro SD Card for my Nintendo DS flash card, I've been on the constant lookout for high memory at cheap prices. I feel like I'm going insane.

(Submitted from PostN3T for R4i Nintendo DS.)

Bourgeoisophobus said...

It's not exactly a mondegreen, but when I was very little the line in "Puff the Magic Dragon" about how "his head was bent in sorrow" made me picture the dragon with his head encased in a heavy, irregular block of some pumice-like material.

stephanie serine said...

This is great! How about the Pledge of Allegiance? Or the Hail Mary? There's probably some funny ones there.