The Language Perfectionist: “Say What?!” Funny Misunderstandings

A mondegreen is a phrase that has been misheard and thus misunderstood, usually with humorous results.

Here’s an example: A TV commercial claiming that a car was carved from “a single block of steel” was heard by a viewer as “a single glockenspiel.”

Another example: A 2008 news story about newly released Nixon-era tape recordings reported that a transcriber rendered “Mao Zedong” as “Nelson’s tongue.”

Children are natural mondegreeners. Over the years, untold numbers have dutifully intoned “Jose can you see,” “I led the pigeons to the flag,” and “To the republic, for Richard Stans.”

One mondegreen subgenre is especially popular: the misheard rock music lyric. Among the most frequently cited examples:

  • “There’s a bathroom on the right” for “There’s a bad moon on the rise.” (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
  • “The girl with colitis goes by” for “The girl with kaleidoscope eyes.” (The Beatles)
  • “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” for “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky.” (Jimi Hendrix)

Many of these song lyric mondegreens have been collected by a writer named Gavin Edwards and turned into a series of funny books. And numerous websites are devoted to garbled lyrics. One of the more popular — — immortalizes the Hendrix blooper.

The word mondegreen is itself a mondegreen, created by American writer Sylvia Wright. Here’s the story.

In a 1954 article in Harper’s magazine, Wright said that, as a child, she misunderstood two lines of a 17th-century Scottish ballad. The lines were: “They ha’e slain the Earl of Moray, / And laid him on the green.” But she heard them as: “They ha’e slain the Earl of Moray, / And Lady Mondegreen.” Noting that “no one else has thought up a word for [such bloopers],” she coined the term mondegreen.

Caution: No official authority exists to authenticate mondegreens. Some are probably invented by pranksters and passed off to the unsuspecting as the genuine article. Laugh at your own risk!

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.