Mondegreens are the phenomenon of mishearing lines, normally song lyrics, but poetry is also a frequent victim. Sometimes it's lack of correct enunciation, sometimes it's the speed or pitch that a lyric is delivered at, but often, a song lyric or recited poem will become famous not for what it says, but for what it sounds like it says to the uncareful ear. The term "mondegreen" was coined by writer Sylvia Wright in 1954, in an essay she wrote for Harper's Magazine. She wrote:
"Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They have slain the Earl Amurray,
The actual line is "And laid him on the green", from the anonymous 17th-century ballad "The Bonnie Earl O'Murray"."
It should be noted that a mondegreen is not quite as simple as a mistake or mishearing: they arise from the verified phenomenon that the breaks a listener hears between words often do not actually exist, but are inserted by the listener's mind (this is why you perceive speakers of foreign languages to be speaking fast and running their words together): had Hendrix actually been singing "kiss this guy," rather than "kiss the sky," it might well have sounded exactly the same, and thus is a common mondegreen with such lyrics. The fact that sometimes the artist hears about the mondegreen and plays along does not help at all (Jimi himself was aware of the "the sky"/"this guy" mondegreen from an earlier blues song when he wrote the lyrics, and sometimes would point at a guy and/or mime kissing him during a live performance).
Consider also that when you're listening to someone performing a song, you're not just listening to the words, but also the different layers and levels of music behind these words — the rhythm, the percussive beat, the bass line, etc. These sounds often overlap, which means that the spaces that your mind is constructing are being affected by 'noise' (not just referring to loud or annoying sounds, but basically anything that can distort a message before it reaches the receiver), which in turn affects how your mind translates the words. Essentially, your mind is trying to cope with making a coherent message out of numerous different sounds that are reaching your ears all at once, and is essentially doing the equivalent of throwing its arms up in the air and saying "Hell with it, that's probably close enough."
Obviously, the Mondegreen probability rises with a) unfamiliarity with the language, b) unfamiliar words in the sentence, c) loads of homophonous words in the language.
Intentional mondegreens are a staple of filk, parody, comedy, and "novelty" songs; for example, the band They Might Be Giants uses several in their songs as a reference to their childhoods in the 1950s and 1960s. "Weird Al" Yankovic is also known for referencing common mis-hearings of popular songs in his lyrics, often in ways which sound almost identical to the original. This is distinct from the more general use of parody lyrics, as the mondegreens are usually common, pre-existing ones which the lyricist is referencing, rather than a complete invention, as a way of playing with the trope.
The German author Axel Hacke has published various entertaining books about mondegreens. (It also mentions some famous English Mondegreens, like "round John Virgin", "Olive the other Reindeer", "Gladly the cross-eyed bear", and, of course, the Trope Namer.) Dave Barry also included an entire chapter about misheard lyrics in Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs.
A subset of the mondegreen is the eggcorn, in which the misinterpreted word or phrase is one that is still relevant or makes sense in context. Examples include mishearing "Alzheimer's disease" as "old-timer's disease" to describe a senile elder, "beck and call" as "beckon call" to describe summoning someone, or "praying mantis" as "preying mantis" to describe the predatory insect.
There's also the related but distinct Soramimi phenomenon, which is when lyrics in one language sound like actual words and lyrics in another language. Finding soramimi (Japanese, vaguely translating to "tricks of the ears") in songs from other languages is such a popular pastime in Japan that one well-known comedy show devotes a regular segment ("Soramimi Hour") to it. For instance, the refrain of the Scorpions' "You Give Me All I Need" was interpreted as "Yukimi onanii" — "watching the snow fall while pleasuring yourself." A soramimi of "Moskau" by Dschinghis Khan can be found here. For English speakers, probably the best-known soramimi is the title of the Cuban folk-song Guantanamera (popularised by The Sandpipers in 1966) being misheard as "one ton of melon" or "one-ton tomato". Another very popular soramimi is the famous "Benny Lava" video.
Several animutations are based around a long series of intentional mondegreens and soramimis, usually involving faux "lyrics" accompanying a confusing (often foreign-language) song. Someone who has read the faked lyrics often has trouble associating the real ones with the song afterwards.
Computer programs that try to understand speech often come up with something like this, from lyrics or just speech, as it's much more difficult for them to distinguish words from each other than it is for humans. The beta version of the speech-to-text transcriber on Youtube currently works as an automatic Mondegreen generator, often hilariously, when applied to any song there that allows captions.
In July 2008, the 2008 update of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary finally enshrined the word "mondegreen" in its pages. To celebrate this momentous event, Merriam Webster Online began soliciting examples from the public as part of a short-lived publicity campaign.
A series of books (and page-a-day calendars) of mondegreens were put together by Gavin Edwards, the first of which is called 'Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy and Other Misheard Lyrics.
AmIRight.com has a dominating portion of its site dedicated to showcasing an ever-expanding list of mondegreens, likely including those listed here. Yes, you can even submit your own.
Please do not add examples; this page is Definition-Only and merely defines and explains the term. Examples may fit one of the following instead:
- I Heard That As: A Just for Fun page for listing tropers' own mondegreens.
- Lady Mondegreen: A Fan Nickname derived from a misheard line.
- Mondegreen Gag: A humor trope involving one character mishearing another and responding according to what they misheard.