The word mondegreen is, in fact, just another misheard lyric. Shirley Wright coined the term in a 1954 article within Atlantic magazine, tracing the term back to her own childhood confusion. The song "The Bonny Earl of Murray" is supposed to end with these two lines:

They hae slay the Earl of Murray / and laid him on the green.

As a child, however, Wright came to attach a tragic love plot to the song, due to the fact that she was hearing something completely different:

They hae slay the Earl of Murray / and Lady Mondegreen .

Entering the phrase "misheard lyrics" into the Yahoo! search engine will generate 9950 web sites. Most of these web pages are basic, searchable databases containing thousands of examples, while others are forums for exchanging notes and discoveries. These are all manifestations of an unusual cultural diversion: the collection and cataloguing of misunderstood song lyrics. Rarely, however, do these sites attempt to explain or determine patterns in the errors that people make. Beneath the surface of such misperceptions, a phonological basis can be found: ambisyllabicity, voicing, the affrication of stops, and coarticulation are effects which help to explain examples of misheard lyrics.

Formally trained vocalists learn how to sing clearly and sonorously, allowing the meaning of the words to be communicated fully with proper diction. Vowels are the most sonorous and sustained sounds that a singer will vocalize. Consonants, in turn, are important for the rhythm and articulation of the text, and a trained singer can produce them clearly without disrupting the sonority of the vowels. In addition, glottal stops are avoided in proper singing.

Most popular music, however, does not necessarily stick to the above ideals. This is what makes popular music such a rich fount for misheard lyrics: it ensures an increased probability that the words will become misunderstood, or garbled, along the way. For example, most popular singers have not been trained formally, or simply have a distinctive style of vocally realizing the music. Also, particularly in rock music, the instruments might be louder than the singer, and so might overshadow or interfere with the lyrics. The quality of the recording plays a major role in the listener’s experience: many misheard lyrics can be attributed to the static of the radio or to vinyl records. Finally, if the singer has a strong Southern or Liverpudlian accent, this may affect how they sing the words, or how well a listener (possibly unfamiliar with the accent) perceives what they hear.

Shirley Wright’s mondegreen is probably a perfect example of the effects of dialect upon a song. If it was sung with a Scottish (or pseudo-Scottish ) accent, then it probably affected the child’s understanding of the lyrics: the /h/, for example, was probably dropped from "him." However, a preference for filled onsets has a part to play. As noted above, glottal stops are avoided while singing, and filled onsets are preferred for their sonority. In the original lyrics, it is presumed that the syllabic break will occur between the words "laid him on the green." These five words, instead, became compressed into two words in Wright’s mind: the /m/ became attached to the last three words as the onset, and not the coda, of a word, thereby creating a filled onset. Also, the /I/ of him became the coda for the word lady, producing another filled onset. In addition, the principle of maximization of onsets is involved: the onset for mondegreen becomes more maximized in the process.

The aversion to glottal stops works differently in another example. A famous misheard lyric involves an old church hymn called "Gladly, the cross I’d bear." Apparently, many a child has been confused by the mental image of "Gladly the cross-eyed bear." The word cross-eyed operates more like a single word, at least when compared to "cross I’d" The glottal stop, or distinction, between "cross" and "I’d" becomes blurred when sung. Another principle, ambisyllabicity, becomes involved here. In an unstressed syllable, the first consonant of the onset also serves as the coda of the preceding syllable. In this case, the /s/ becomes both the onset of I’d/eyed and the coda for cross, contributing to the illusion that there is one word instead of two. This example is very similar to another one which appears in an old Alanis Morrissette song titled "You Oughta Know". The line "the cross I bear that you gave to me" was long been misinterpreted by my ears as "the cross-eyed babe that you gave to me."

The most recognized mondegreen, arguably, comes from the Jimi Hendrix song, "Purple Haze." The line is supposed to be "‘scuse me while I kiss the sky." Instead, it has usually been perceived as "‘scuse me while I kiss this guy." In fact, even Hendrix was aware of the mondegreen, and deliberately played up the syllabification and the suggestiveness on stage by kissing a bandmate. In this example, the glottal stop between the and sky is removed by attaching /s/ as the coda for "the," and the ambisyllabicity of /s/ allows the words "the" and "sky" to blend. However, the biggest alteration comes from the effects of voicing. The distinctive feature which differentiates /k/ from /g/ (a minimal pair) is voicing. Since singing is associated with sustained voicing, the /k/ becomes replaced by /g/ easily due to the environmental (perseverative) influence of the preceding vowel. The combination /sg/ is not typical in English onsets, so the listener likely assumes that there must be a syllabic break between the words.

This same idea affects a lyric in the Beatle’s song, "Lucy in the Skies with Diamonds." The often misheard phrase is "Lucy in Disguise" : the voiceless /k/ becomes replaced by the voiced /g/, and ambisyllabicity encourages the listener to hear one two- syllable word instead of two single-syllable words. Perseverative coarticulation alters the realization of the. The onset /ð/ ("th" as in the) is, by phonemic definition, a voiced interdental fricative, yet becomes sounded as /d/, a voiced alveolar plosive. The placement of /n/, an alveolar consonant, just in front of /ð/ creates a phonemic environment in which it becomes easier to articulate /ð/ as an alveolar consonant as well. The same process renders "the" into "de-" in Shirley Wright’s mondegreen example. The phoneme /s/ can sometimes be voiced and realized more like /z/, as in "sleep in heavenly peas." (Also: Give peas a chance).

Sometimes, a singer will choose to do without an obstructive, plosive consonant in order to prolong the sonority of a syllable. This is manifested when the stop becomes affricated (this is also another aversion of the cursed glottal stop). One example of this is found in the Christmas carol, Silent Night, specifically in the line "Round yon virgin." Listeners have often heard /d/ as an affricate (/dz/ as in judge) rather than as a stop, resulting in "Round John Virgin".

If the plosive is dropped altogether, it seems to usually take place at the coda of a syllable. For example, in The Beatle’s song "I Want to Hold Your Hand", the words "I can’t hide!" have been interpreted as "I get high!" (for example, by Bob Dylan). The voiceless /k/ has been exchanged for a voiced /g/ in this instance as well, but the most relevant feature is that the /d/ is not realized (the /ai/ is taken advantage of for a good Beatle-esque wail). Instead, listeners have tried to fill in the blanks, or the coda, so that it would make sense. One misinterpretation, in fact, is that Paul McCartney is singing, "I get hives!" In Creedence Clearwater Revival’s "Bad Moon Rising," John Fogarty virtually drops the /d/, and so many listeners have heard "There’s a bathroom on the right," instead of "There’s a bad moon on the rise."

All of the cited examples demonstrate an essential ingredient which transcends phonology: the imagination. It isn’t a coincidence that children are the best source for mondegreens: their ability to make sense of what they don’t completely understand is usually compensated for in precocious and inventive ways. Also, a large number of the mondegreens observed in the web-based databases seem to be simply humourous adaptations of the lyrics. Such misheard lyrics probably have more to do with the individual listener than with phonological principles such as ambisyllabicity, although the latter will often further the chance for misperception.

These aural illusions, anyhow, continue to be intriguing curiosities within both the language and in pop culture, providing a means for applying phonological concepts to a subject like rock ‘n roll.

Eiram's note: If this is too heavy on the jargon or too long, please let me know and I'll add definitions for linguistic terms.
Carthag recently reminded me of another mondegreen which many a child of the Eighties might remember. The Transformers theme song has a line that is supposed to be Robots in disguise. However, Carthag, me, etc./we once thought it was Robots in the skies.

Also, machfive forwarded a few of his pet mondegreens Like most of us, he says that he could think of a biliion more. Here are the ones at the top of his head:

In the Dream Theater song "Anna Lee," there's a line which is often heard as "Questioned secrets sorryville..." The proper line is "Secrets are are revealed." Interestingly enough, there's a band out there who liked "Sorryville" enough to name their band that.

In yet another DT song, "Lifting Shadows off a Dream," there's a lyric, "Breaking delicate winds." Which implies farting, which is funny. Of course, the real line is "Breaking delicate wings." But that doesn't matter. ;-)

Other classic DT mis-heards:

"Death is the first dancing turtle"
"Death is the first dance eternal." (from "Metropolis Part 1")

"This world is spinning in sodomy"
"This world is spinning inside of me" (from "Pull Me Under")

Ueni offered me this mondegreen from the Offspring song, "Come Out and Play": "take him out"
"drink your milk"

Timeshredder says: David Bowie's "Cracked Actor" has the infamous, "Crack, baby, crack; show me you're real," regularly heard as "Crack, baby crack; show me your rear."

Let me know about your own misheard lyrics and I'll add an E2 mondegreen listing here.

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