There is an actual official term for when you hear “excuse me while I kiss the sky” in Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” as “excuse me while I kiss this guy.” Your meaningful misheard lyrics are called “mondegreens,” and their study can have real psychological significance.
We’ve all had those awkward moments. A group of friends is singing in a car, and suddenly, someone says the wrong word. And everyone looks at each other, wondering how that person heard the wrong song lyrics, or whether they themselves are wrong. These little misunderstandings are common, but most people don’t know that there is an official title for them. It came from a popular essay by writer Sylvia Wright, where she recalled when her mother read a certain book of poems to her. One of the verses was as follows:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
Readers will be glad to know that Lady Mondegreen was spared the slaughter, but only because she never existed. The actual last line of the verse was, “And laid him on the green.” Wright christened these misheard lyrics, which often make the poem or song better for the listener, “mondegreens.” The title caught on.
Mondegreens and What They Mean
Sometimes the mondegreens make more sense than the original lyrics, but such a happy coincidence is a rare event. What’s interesting is everyone has an explanation of their particular mondegreen.
I heard “I can feel it coming in the air tonight,” as “I can hear it coming in the yellow night,” well into my college years, and thought Phil Collins was just being poetic. A friend of mine claims both her parents, independently, heard Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “There’s a bad moon on the rise,” as “There’s a bathroom on the right.” She had to be born, grow up, listen to the song herself, and correct them before they even considered that they were wrong. When she asked them how they thought the lyrics were directions to the bathroom, her father answered, “I just figured they were stoned.” Which is as good an explanation as any.
Mondegreens are often measures of experience. (This is why we all kept an eye on my brother when he heard the doo-wop song “Who Wrote the Book of Love” as “Who Let the Great Horse Die.” It was probably an innocent mistake but we didn’t want an amateur production of Equus on our hands.) This is why the signature phrases of most songs are misinterpreted. The lyrics that defy cliche and break new ground are most likely to get misunderstood. “Excuse me, while I kiss this guy” might have still been outré in the 1960s when “Purple Haze” was written, but it was still more familiar than kissing the sky. We cobble together a semi-plausible lyric because we lack the experience to understand the real one. The people who are most likely to do this are the ones most lacking in experience.
Children, Language Learners, and Mondegreens
Kids learn by ear, and they know that they’re still learning words, so they are particularly vulnerable to mondegreens. One class of children, when asked to copy out the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” wrote, “Oh say can you see, by the donzerly light.” Children group words together, the way they hear them, in a stream of continuous syllables. They assume the meaning of “donzerly” will come later, when they hear a few more examples of the word. We enunciate for small babies, but as children grow, they are expected to pick up individual words, many of which they’ve never been exposed to, in a stream of noise. Language learners also have difficulty distinguishing one word from another, which can run them into real trouble in business or medical settings.
A surprising amount of tests for which words tend to throw people off involve exactly what we do in cars — listening to song lyrics. Children and English learners transcribe the words, and psychologists try to figure out what characteristics of the speaker, or the words, make people mentally squish words together.
Many researchers have found that mondegreens tend not to travel alone. Once people lose understanding of a sentence, they lose context as well, causing them to "hear" words that only resemble the actual words being uttered. People, especially adult English learners, are desperately trying to regain the thread of meaning, and make order out of a chaos of sounds. Eventually they trick themselves into hearing something that they recognize, even if it doesn't make sense. What most people need, scientists find, is familiar points where they can get their bearings, and enter back into the thread of the conversation. If they can't get regular familiar points to orient themselves in a stream of sound, mondegreens will take over and give them fake points of familiarity.
What are your memorable mondegreens?