PUBLISHED EVERY MONDAY: As William Safire has written: The most saluted man in America is Richard Stans. Legions of schoolchildren place their hands over their hearts to pledge allegiance to the flag, “and to the republic for Richard Stans.” With all due patriotic fervor, the same kids salute “one nation, under guard.” Some begin with “I pledge a legion to the flag,” others with “I led the pigeons to the flag.”
These mishearings or misinterpretations of the spoken word, typically a standardized phrase such as a line in a poem or a lyric in a song, are called Mondegreens, thanks to American writer Sylvia Wright. Wright coined the term in her essay “The Death of Lady Mondegreen,” published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1954.
In the essay, Wright described how, as a young girl, she misheard the final line of the first stanza from the 17th-century ballad “The Bonny Earl O’Moray”. She wrote:
“When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.”
The actual fourth line is “And laid him on the green”. Wright explained the need for a new term: “The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.”
Other examples Wright suggested are:
- Surely Good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life (“Surely goodness and mercy…” from Psalm 23)
- The wild, strange battle cry “Haffely, Gaffely, Gaffely, Gonward.” (“Half a league, half a league,/ Half a league onward,” from “The Charge of the Light Brigade”)
My most memorable mondegreen as a child was the enthusiastic singing of “Round young virgin” (‘Round yon virgin) at Christmas time, though I had no idea what a round young virgin might be.
Here, then, are some famous mondegreens from popular songs, hymns, and carols:
- “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear.” (“Gladly The Cross I’d Bear.” Traditional Hymn)
- “There’s a bathroom on the right.” (“There’s a bad moon on the rise.” Bad Moon Rising, Creedence Clearwater)
- “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.” (“Excuse me while I kiss the sky.” Purple Haze, Jimi Hendrix)
- “Dead ants are my friends; they’re blowin’ in the wind.” (“The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.” Blowin’ In The Wind, Bob Dylan)
- “Midnight after you’re wasted.” (“Midnight at the oasis.” Midnight at the Oasis, Maria Muldaur)
- “The girl with colitis goes by.” (“The girl with kaleidoscope eyes.” Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, The Beatles)
- “Sleep in heavenly peas.” (“Sleep in heavenly peace.” Silent Night, Christmas carol)
- “I’ve got sperms that jingle jangle jingle.” (“I’ve Got Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle”, Gene Autry)
- “My body lies over the ocean.” (“My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”, Scottish folk song)
- “Hold me closer, Tony Danza” (Hold me closer tiny dancer, Elton John)
- “Sunday monkey won’t play piano song, play piano song.” (“Sont des mots qui vont tres bien ensemble; tres bien ensemble”, Michelle, The Beatles
- “I’ll be your xylophone waiting for you.” (“I’ll be beside the phone waiting for you.” Build Me Up Buttercup, The Foundations)
- “Are you going to starve an old friend?” (“Are you going to Scarborough Fair?” Scarborough Fair, Simon and Garfunkel)
- “Baking carrot biscuits.” (“Taking care of business.” Takin’ Care Of Business, Bachman-Turner Overdrive)
- “Donuts make my brown eyes blue.” (“Don’t it make my brown eyes blue.” Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue, Crystal Gale)
- “What a nice surprise when you’re out of ice.” (“What a nice surprise bring your alibis.” Hotel California, Eagles)
- “I’m a pool hall ace.” (“My poor heart aches.” Every Step You Take, The Police)
- “Just brush my teeth before you leave me, baby.” (“Just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby.” -Angel of the Morning, Juice Newton)
If you want a whole bunch of hilarious Mondegreens, visit http://www.sfgate.com/columnists/carroll/mondegreens.shtml
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