Madonna is not a Cheerio girl, Eleanor Rigby wasn’t homely, and Melanie’s pizza wasn’t burning.

Madonna is a material girl, not a Cheerio girl; Eleanor Rigby, bless her heart, was one of the lonely people, not homely people; and the Rolling Stones were proclaiming, “I’ll never be your beast of burden,” not “Melanie, your pizza’s burning.”

Mishearing bits of lyric such as these is common. And there’s a word for it.

In 1954, Sylvia Wright, writing in Harper’s Magazine, told of a youthful memory.

“When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques. One of my favorite poems began, as I remember:

“Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They have slain the Earl Amurray,
And Lady Mondegreen.”

Wright grew up with a soft spot for the tragic Lady Mondegreen.

Years later, to her surprise and dismay, she learned that the lines are from an anonymous 17th-century ballad, “The Bonnie Earl O’Moray.” Not only had she misheard the Earl’s name, she had completely misunderstood the fourth line. What it said was not, “And Lady Mondegreen,” but rather, “And laid him on the green.”

The mishearing of things spoken or sung came to be referred to as a mondegreen.

One of the most misspoken bits of prose is the Pledge of Allegiance. There are many ways kids manage to get it wrong, but the most severe comes from the children’s novel, In the Year of the Boar. A young Chinese girl on her first day of school in the U.S. renders it, “I pledge a lesson to the frog of the United States of America. And to the wee puppet, for witches’ hands, one Asian, in the vestibule, with little tea and just rice for all.”

Songs (as I illustrated above) provide a great source for jumbled hearing. And alcohol doesn’t help. Back in the 1960s, Doug Ingle, of Iron Butterfly, wrote a song called In the Garden of Eden. He sang it for the drummer, Ron Bushy, who wrote down the words. Ingle, full of wine, slurred his words so badly that Bushy wrote the line as In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. It became one of the top rock songs of all time.

Songs don’t have to be rock and roll to go astray.

In an episode of the TV show, Wings, a character sings “My goat knows the bowling score, hallelujah.” He follows that up with, “Sid’s new hair is in the mail.” (What he meant was Michael, row the boat ashore, and Sister, help to trim the sail.)

One of my favorite mondegreens comes from Beverly Cleary’s young Ramona Quimby. Ramona thought that the words to The Star-Spangled Banner began, “Oh say can you see, by the dawnzer’s lee light.” She believes that dawnzer must be another word for lamp and proudly uses this new vocabulary word one evening. She suggests turning on the dawnzer, adding, when questioned, that it gives off a lee light.

Lady Mondegreen, forgive us, for we have sinned, and in it, taken much delight.


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