Have you ever been shocked to discover that the words of a song you’ve heard countless times were not the actual lyrics—or even close? Would you also be shocked to know there is a term for this kind of error? A mondegreen is a word or phrase that results from mishearing or misinterpreting something auditory, such as a song. The listener substitutes words that sound similar to the misheard content and that seem sufficiently plausible in context.
A famous mondegreen is “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” (instead of “Excuse me while I kiss the sky,” a line from Jimi Hendrix’s song “Purple Haze”). Another oft-cited musical mondegreen is “There’s a bathroom on the right” (rather than “There’s a bad moon on the rise,” Creedence Clearwater Revival). Examples of mondegreens in everyday language include “for all intensive purposes” (“for all intents and purposes”), “deep-seeded” (“deep-seated”), and “one in the same” (“one and the same”). I am always surprised to find that someone thinks the name of the HBO series about Carrie Bradshaw and her friends is Sex in the City (not Sex and the City).
The word mondegreen is itself a mondegreen. American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in Harper’s Magazine in November 1954. When Wright was a child, her mother would read to her from an eighteenth-century collection of ballads and popular songs. One of Wright’s favorite poems, “The Bonny Earl o’ Moray,” began as follows:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
Wright envisaged Lady Mondegreen as a woman with dark curls and a green dress, her throat pierced by an arrow; she lay at the earl’s side, holding his hand. However, the real fourth line of the verse was not “And Lady Mondegreen” but “And laid him on the green.” In other words, there was no Lady Mondegreen! Wright memorialized her tragic yet nonexistent heroine in the name of the phenomenon she exemplified.
I believe I have proof that a musician succumbed to a mondegreen—in his own song! Duran Duran released the album Seven and the Ragged Tiger in November 1983. Here is the chorus of the second track, “New Moon on Monday” (scanned from the inner sleeve):
The first few times I heard the song, I mistook “firedance through the night” for “five days through the night”—words that romantically evoked a night so long and full of adventure that it was equivalent to five days. (This line has stumped others, as well.) I caught my mistake, however, while studying the actual lyrics. When the video for “New Moon on Monday” premiered, I was astonished to see that John Taylor, the group’s bassist, seemed to have the same misunderstanding! Near the end of the video, while enthusiastically lip-syncing “And a firedance through the night,” he twice held up his hand as if indicating the number five—as in “five days through the night”!
It seems inconceivable that a guitarist would hear his own song incorrectly, so perhaps I misperceived the gesture and substituted my own interpretation—you know, a new moon.