linguistics and lexicography Love English

Mildew all around me, and other mondegreens

© CORBISMisheard song lyrics have been in my head again. Kerry Maxwell’s BuzzWord article on creep as a combining form reminded me of the memorably rude example ‘I drove all night, crapped in your room’ – instead of crept. Then a Twitter friend mentioned ‘Poppadum Creek’, a surreal misanalysis of Madonna’s lyric ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, and it got the ball rolling.

The word for this is mondegreen. As Stephen Bullon notes, it was coined in 1954 by Sylvia Wright, who heard an old ballad that went ‘They have slain the Earl o’ Moray / And laid him on the green’ and thought the second line was ‘And Lady Mondegreen’. She used mondegreen in an essay for Harper’s, from where it was widely adopted as a term for misheard lyrics and other phrases.



Songs have a way of getting stuck in our heads – the German loanword earworm evokes this phenomenon nicely – and it can happen easily even when the lyrics aren’t distinct. Since our minds tend to generate familiar patterns out of perceived noise or random data, we turn unintelligible lyrics into words we recognise, even if they make little or no sense. Song lyrics aren’t renowned for their coherency anyway.

Mondegreens can be subjective or collective. Everyone’s experience of a song is unique, so new and idiosyncratic mondegreens keep appearing. Others are common enough to be famous in the field, like Jimi Hendrix’s ‘kiss this guy’, instead of kiss the sky. Some mondegreens might begin as accidents of perception but be amusing enough to then be deliberately adopted, replacing the original words. Wright herself wrote that they were ‘better than the original’, and some singers even embrace the mondegreens.

Back when Ireland couldn’t stop winning the Eurovision Song Contest, Niamh Kavanagh’s 1993 winner ‘In Your Eyes’ contained the lyric: ‘I built a wall around me’ (a metaphorical wall of emotion, not a reference to Ireland’s construction boom, which hadn’t happened yet). Someone in my family decided it was ‘Mildew all around me’, and this became our preferred version.

The potential for comedy is obvious, as in the tirelessly silly reinterpretation of Joe Cocker singing ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ at Woodstock (‘Oh, I’ll take this almond love’). There are more laughs to be found in the examples at the Guardian music blog, for example ‘Shamu the mysterious whale’ (She moves in mysterious ways), ‘I wanna be a door/dog’ (I wanna be adored), ‘Sue Lawley’ (So lonely), ‘R-G-S-P-E-P-P’ (R-E-S-P-E-C-T), ‘Let’s pee in the corner’ (That’s me in the corner), and ‘Grim poodle-basher on the 45’ (Brimful of Asha…). What are your mondegreens?

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

31 Comments

  • It’s not really a mondegreen because I know what the real words are, but I do like to sing :”When I fall in love/It will be a heifer” and also “Stake my glands – I’m a stranger in paradise …”

  • Terry: I like the heifer one! We might need another term for song lyrics we know are wrong but which we sing anyway, something catchier than deliberate mondegreen.

  • Oh dear yes, thanks to the brilliant Terry Wogan I can’t ever now hear that blockbusting number from the musical Evita without hearing ‘don’t cry for me Arthur Negas …’

  • Chris: “The cross-eyed bear” is a classic of the type.

    Spank: An easy one to mishear, and it makes its own kind of sense.

    Kerry: I had to look up Arthur Negus – we didn’t have BBC when I was growing up. Now I can see the appeal of Wogan’s version.

  • Many years ago there was a programme on BBC Radio 4 with Denis Norden and Frank Muir in which the panellists had to supply a shaggy dog story that culminated in a mangled but coherent version of a well-known saying. One that has stuck in my mind is ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’, rendered by Norden as ‘arrows-sees Harrow-Ciceros’. It made perfect sense at the time.

  • Liz: I’m sure it did! It reminds me a little of Flann O’Brien, who would go to extravagant lengths for the sake of a pun or piece of bilingual wordplay.

  • ‘The cross-eyed bear / the cross I’d bear’ is in a special subcategory because the intended version and the misheard version are phonetically identical – they’re phrasal homophones, in fact – unlike ‘Poppadum Creek’ / ‘Papa don’t preach’ etc.

  • John Lennon: ‘All we are saying is kidneys and jam’. I enjoyed this bit of absurdity for a long time until somebody pointed out to me the song was about peace. How disappointing.

  • I have two experiences with what I’ll call “complete mondegreens”, in which every word, rather than only certain crucial words, of a lyric is misheard. One day some decades ago, a singer-composer friend of mine played me a tape of himself singing “Born to Be Wild”. By whatever chance, I had never heard the song before, though it wasn’t new even then. I listened to the whole thing with puzzlement and said “It’s a great song, but what language are the lyrics in?” I had not understood a single word of it! He laughed, and showed me the lyrics, and when he played the tape a second time, even though I wasn’t looking at the lyrics I understood it perfectly, so there was no problem with his elocution. What’s more, I cannot now remember a single bit of the misheard version — as soon as I knew the correct version, I lost all memory of what I had thought I heard.

    My six-year-old grandson likes to sing Thomas the Tank Engine songs, and mostly he gets the lyrics right, but there is one which he consistently sings as pure gibberish.

  • John: Your “complete mondegreen” is a remarkable occurrence. I’d love to know how that happened, whether some aspect of your language processing just fell out of phase with the song’s delivery before realigning for the second listen. Childhood is a great time for mondegreens (and gibberish) too; I wish I could remember more of my early confusions.

  • I was a wee one when I heard bits from Cats. I had also just learned how to name parts of the body . . .

    “Mammaries, all alone in the moonlight.”

    I was so surprised that the song was about boobs, but young enough to not know or think it unreasonable.

  • The “complete mondegreen” effect is almost the exact opposite of the mythical electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) where people hear words that aren’t there.

    There is a song where I hear Brian Ferry singing the chorus as “Central Line”. But I have no idea at all what the words really are (nor what the song is).

  • Many years ago we received a stern lecture from a friend’s mom about the cruelty of singing that Neil Young song about the “crippled creep fairy'” running through the overhanging trees.

    We teased her about it for years, and could always get her out of a bad mood by breaking into the chorus.

  • Jamie: They could also be seen as quite similar phenomena, since both EVP and mondegreens involve people hearing noise (or what amounts to noise from their point of view) and perceiving intelligible words in it.
    I’m afraid I’m not familiar enough with Brian Ferry’s work to guess at the song you’re referring to, but another reader might have an idea.

  • Kate, Kathryn, and Maeve, thanks for these great examples. Mammaries ‘memories’ of course is a very productive pair of near-homophones, recurring also in jokes and double entendres. The ‘Rocket Man’ ad is funny, and a nice idea; I hadn’t seen it before. ‘Crippled creep fairy’ is terrific – I’m not surprised it led to teasing!

  • Before Sting got his hands on it and changed the lyrics, there was an early 90s hit which went’ I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien, I’ m a Jamaican in New York’ – rendered note perfect by my then five-year-old son as ‘ I’m an alien, I’m a little alien, I’m a jam maker in New York’. He also insisted that Whitney Houston was singing I’m every walnut’ and declared the corrected version ‘ridiculous’.

  • Oh, and I forgot about my husband’s mishearing in his distant childhood of the second line of the chorus to the 1970s country hit ‘It’s a fine time to leave me Lucille’, which he was convinced went on ‘with four hundred children and a crap in the fields’.

  • Fats Domino was a source of lots of these for us as kids, including ‘You used to use my arms as rella’ (umbrella) and something like ‘Jambalaya cause big fun, feelin’ a gum-bowl / ‘Cause tonight I’m gonna sing my majella meal’ (Jambalaya and a craw fish pie and filet gumbo / ‘Cause tonight I’m gonna see my ma Cher Amio). Pretty much the whole of Jambalaya we were winging it!

  • Dave: ‘You take a piece of meat with you’ is a classic. The Maxell ad is good, though I suspect improving the sound quality could never clear up all the misinterpretations of that song…

    Alma: As a child I assumed it was ‘a little alien’ too, though not a jam maker. ‘Crap’ seems to recur as a misheard word, what with your husband’s mondegreen, the Roy Orbison song, and the time I told my father I’d gone out for a crêpe with my classmates on a French exchange.

    Oisín: I said the very same thing to Danny recently, that for most of Jambalaya we were pretty much winging it! Fats Domino was great for these all right, and many of them pure gibberish; my version of that line was: ‘tonight I’m gonna see my macheddo mio’, whatever that was.

  • As a professional writer, articulate singer and composer, I am addicted to the unraveling of mondegreens. Four of the most famous among hundreds from the US music industry include:

    1. ‘All in the Family’ theme song, “Gee our old LaSalle ran great…” was lost on 99% of the American public for the first several episodes. It was finally re-recorded with greater emphasis on articulating the name ‘LaSalle”, which was a lower-priced line of Cadillacs in the 1930s, but long forgotten three generations later.

    2. ‘Proud Mary’ has been recorded by many vocalists and karaoke distributors, and they always make the same mistake on the 2nd line of the 2nd verse, ‘I pumped a lot of pain down in New Orleans…’ The actual line goes, ‘I pumped a lot of ‘tane down in New Orleans…’ OK, what the hell is “‘tane”? That’s slang for “octane’, which was a unique way of saying he worked in a gas station! Even John Fogerty, who wrote and recorded the song, muffed over this one.

    3. Johnny Cash and June Carter’s ‘Jackson’ duet from 1968 left America wondering what they meant by, ‘And I’ll be waitin’ in Jackson, behind my jay pan flan.’ What they meant to say was ‘… behind my Japan fan’, but the background music over-modulated the line.

    4. One popular hit song from 1958 was called, ‘Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho’. In this quasi-religious song, ‘fit’ was a slang word for ‘fought’. Also in 1958, was a popular dietary supplement called Geritol, which was over-promoted on every media in America. So while the song went, ‘Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and it all came tumbling down’, kids all over America sang, ‘Joshua tipped the bottle of Geritol, and it all came tumbling down’.

  • Thanks for these nice examples, Jason. I like especially like the ‘tane one: it’s likely to be an unfamiliar abbreviation to most listeners, so the potential for mondegreening is obvious. <Fit meaning ‘fought’ was also in dialectal and vernacular use, historically, so that that may have influenced the use you mention.

  • Stan, I like anyone who legitimately coins a new verb, such as mondegreening. Great work!

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