Did you begin the school day by placing your right hand over your heart and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance? If you were among the many kids who thought “indivisible” was “invisible,” or “liberty” was “liver tea,” you were not alone. We don’t have a definition for liver tea, nor do we believe anyone would drink it, but this common misunderstanding of a phrase is called a mondegreen.
A mondegreen is a misinterpretation of a word or phrase that shares homophony (sounds like) another word or phrase that has been heard.
Not to be confused with a malapropism, which is the unintentional improper use of a single word, mondegreens are often applied to a line in a poem or a lyric from a song – usually with amusing results.
Sylvia Wright, an American author, coined the term after a phrase she recalls mishearing as a young girl. According to Wright, the first stanza from the 17th century ballad “The Boony Earl O’Moray” goes a little something like this:
The correct phrasing of the fourth line is actually, “And laid him on the green.” As Wright points out, many times mondegreens can seem to be of superior quality to the actual words.
James Gleick, an American author and journalist, believes the mondegreen is a distinctly modern event. “Without improved communication and standardization of language which accompanies it, there would have been no way for this shared experience to have been recognized and discussed.”
Some popular mondegreens include:
- “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy “(‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky from “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix)
- “Alex the seal” (Our lips are sealed from “Our Lips Are Sealed” by the Go-Go’s)
- “Hold me closer Tony Danza” (Hold me closer tiny dancer from “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John)
An example of a reverse mondegreen is Iron Butterfly’s 1968 hit “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” which was originally titled “In the Garden of Eden.”
Now it’s your turn – share some of your favorite mondegreens. What did you believe were the words to the Pledge of Allegiance or the Star-Spangled Banner?