When you mishear song lyrics, the resulting error is called a mondegreen. We have the story about why and the run-down on similar funny errors.
This is one of a few questions I got about mondegreens after I mentioned them in a recent episode about the poop emoji.
“Hi, Mignon. This is J.T. Morris from Evergreen, Texas. I'm a huge fan of Grammar Girl, and I just listened to the episode today in which you had a segment about an eggcorn related to the poop emoji. It was the word “holy” and the proper spelling of that in relation to that text. In listening to that segment, I realized I think I have been misusing the word “mondegreen.” I always assumed that what you referred to and as eggcorn was a mondegreen. So I would love some feedback on the differentiation between an eggcorn and a mondegreen for clarification purposes. Thanks so much, and yeah, I totally love the podcast. Bye!”
Thanks for the question, J.T.
There are so many different kinds of errors that sometimes it seems overwhelming, but fortunately, a lot of them are funny, like thinking Creedence Clearwater Revival sang “There’s a bathroom on the right” instead of “There’s a bad moon on the rise” and saying something is a “little fit bunny” instead of a “little bit funny.” (1)
I’ll start with eggcorns and then explain how they’re different from mondegreens, and then we’ll also talk about spoonerisms and malapropisms because they’re similar too.
Mondegreens happen when you mishear something, usually a song lyric, and create a new meaning. The Creedence “There’s a bathroom on the right” mistake is mondegreen, as it is when people listen to “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer” and hear “Olive, the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names” instead of “all of the other reindeer.”
The name “mondegreen” was coined by a writer named Sylvia Wright who misheard a line from a 17th-century Scottish ballad.
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl of O’ Moray,
And laid him on the green.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for the future of word play), Wright heard the last line as “And Lady Mondegreen” instead of “And laid him on the green.”
Wright had imagined a second slaying victim where there was none, and when she discovered the error she decided to name the phenomenon after the nonexistent Lady Mondegreen.
Some of my favorite mondegreens come from children’s misinterpretations of the Pledge of Allegiance. I'm thinking of the scene in the movie "Kindergarten Cop" where the kids are saying the Pledge, and if I remember correctly there are lines like “I led the pigeons to the flag” and “One Nation under God, invisible, with liver tea and Justice for all.”
There are a lot of great mondegreens from popular music. For example, some people think the song from The Killers is “Mr. Nice Guy” instead of “Mr. Brightside,” and some people hear the TLC lyric “Don’t go chasing waterfalls” as “Don’t go, Jason Waterfalls.” That Jason…why won’t he stay?
A reader named Mark said that in Billy Joel’s song “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” many people hear “trouble in the Suez” as “trouble in the sewers,” and a reader named Jennifer said that when she was a kid she used to go around the house singing “sand on the rug” instead of “band on the run.”
I like to imagine the mythical Lady Mondegreen happily singing along.
Eggcorns were first identified as a separate phenomenon in 2003, and got their name from a discussion on the Language Log website about a woman who misheard the word “acorn” as “eggcorn.” (4)
In eggcorns, people replace the right word with a different word that sounds the same—a homophone—that makes logical sense in the phrase.
For example, as I said last month, the woman who made up the word “eggcorn” to mistakenly describe an acorn could have been imagining that an egg could grow into a chicken like the oak nut grows into a tree, and that makes some kind of logical sense.
In another example, a reader named Stephanie said she always thought people were saying "windshield factor" and didn't realize it was "wind chill factor" until she was in her 20s. It made sense to her because she thought when you are in a car, it’s warmer, but the windshield factor would take into account the elements if you were outside the car. And you can see how this might make sense. So that’s an eggcorn too.
It doesn’t change the meaning like in a mondegreen. “Windshield factor” and “wind chill factor” have the same meaning in Stephanie’s mind. But in a mondegreen, like when you think the line is “trouble in the sewers” instead of “trouble in the Suez,” the new wrong form means something different from the right form.
Other examples of eggcorns include “coming down the pipe” instead of “coming down the pike” and “chomping at the bit” instead of “champing at the bit.”
Many of the most common eggcorns seem to swap homophones in familiar phrases, such as writing “hear, hear” using H-E-R-E instead of H-E-A-R. (It’s spelled “hear,” like in the way you hear with your ears, because it means something like “Hear him! Hear him!”). Another one is B-A-I-L-I-N-G for B-A-L-I-N-G in “baling wire,” and T-O-W instead of T-O-E in “toe the line.” (It’s spelled “toe” like the things on your feet because it comes from the idea of people putting their toes on a line on the ground.)
So, eggcorns and mondegreens both happen when you mishear something, and the main difference is that mondegreens dramatically change the meaning of the phrase and eggcorns don’t.
Next, I’ll talk about malapropisms. The name comes from a French phrase meaning “badly for the purpose.” People started using it to describe the silly misuse of words after the playwright Richard Sheridan named one of his characters, who had a habit of ridiculously mixing up words, Mrs. Malaprop. (The play is called "The Rivals.")
Malapropisms occur when someone substitutes a similar-sounding word for another word. For example, George Bush was reported to say, “nucular power pants” instead of “nuclear power plants” in 2003, and, in Sheridan’s play, Mrs. Malaprop says someone is, “the very pineapple of politeness” instead of “the very pinnacle of politeness.”
Scott Perez-Fox reminded me that Dogberry in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” makes great comic use of malapropisms. For example, he says,” "O villain! Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this," when he meant everlasting damnation. (5)
The difference between a malapropism and a mondegreen can be subtle, but people typically think of a malapropism as a mistake made by a speaker—someone like Mrs. Malaprop saying the wrong word—whereas a mondegreen is a mistake made by a listener—someone mishearing a word or phrase. Also, people sometimes intentionally use malapropisms to be funny, but mondegreens are innocent mistakes.
Now, back to the “little fit bunny” type of error I mentioned at the beginning. It’s called a spoonerism in honor of Reverend William Archibald Spooner, who taught at New College in Oxford in the 1800s and early 1900s, and had a reputation for mixing up words. Reports say that he was less than thrilled to be “honored” by having the error named after him.
A spoonerism is another particular kind of mix-up. It happens when you swap sounds between two words in a phrase. (2, 3) There are unintentional spoonerisms that don't make sense, such as “goys and birls” (for “boys and girls”), and then there are spoonerisms that create new, funny meanings such as “keys and parrots” (for “peas and carrots”) and “better Nate than lever” (for “better late than never”).
I confess that on more than one occasion I have called my relatives Gail and Dave, Dale and Gave!
There are also intentional spoonerisms. For example, Keen James wrote a book called "Stoopnagle's Tale Is Twisted: Spoonerisms Run Amok" that retells fairy tales using spoonerisms. Chapters include “Beeping Sleuty” and “Prinderella and the Since.” Christopher Manson wrote a book called "The Rails I Tote," which has 45 spoonerism cartoons for readers to decipher (such as “bee tags” for “tea bags”). And Shel Silverstein authored a book called "Runny Babbit: A Billy Sook," which obviously uses spoonerisms.
When I covered this topic a few years ago, a reader named Danielle told me about a story called “Rindercella” instead of “Cinderella.” She said her favorite part is the last line, which goes like this:
“Now the storal of the mory is this: If you ever go to a bancy fall, and you want a prandsome hince to lall in fove with you, don't forget to slop your dripper.”
The original "Rindercella" skit appeared on the TV show “HeeHaw,” and you can watch the video at YouTube.
As I was researching this topic, I also came across spoonerisms that seemed to be intentional attempts to eliminate swear words while still getting the point across. Some of the less offensive examples include “nucking futs” (from the movie "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star"), “biserable mastered” (from the video game "Escape from Monkey Island"), “bass ackwards,” and "no wucking furries.”
It makes me wonder if Reverend Spooner is grolling over in his rave!
Spoonerisms, mondegreens, eggcorns, and malapropisms are all instances where you get the words wrong. My brain is starting to hurt trying to keep the names straight, so I’ll summarize them again.
- Spoonerisms are what you get when a speaker mixes up sounds, making phrases such as “better Nate than lever.” Remember William Spooner and his particular kind of mix up such as “The Lord is a shoving leopard” instead of “The Lord is a loving shepherd.”
- Mondegreens are what you get when listeners mishear words; for example when people think the song lyrics are “Sweet dreams are made of cheese” instead of “Sweet dreams are made of this.” Think of Lady Mondegreen being laid on the green.
- Eggcorns are what you get when people swap homophones in phrases, such as spelling “Hear! Hear!” H-E-R-E instead of H-E-A-R. Remember the woman who thought an acorn was an “eggcorn.”
- Malapropisms are what you get when someone substitutes a similar-sounding word for another, such as “He's the pineapple of politeness” instead of “He's the pinnacle of politeness.” Remember funny Mrs. Malaprop from the Richard Sheridan play.
Word Mix-Ups and Alzheimer’s
Finally, one not-so-funny thing about a specific way of mixing up words is that it can be an early sign of brain disease. My dad had a head injury that led to something like early-onset Alzheimer’s, and one of the things we noticed was that he would use a related word instead of the right word. He might call his watch a “time” for example or a chair a “sit.” The Alzheimer’s Association also lists this kind of problem as one of the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s. They give the example of calling a watch a “hand-clock.” So if someone in your family is having this kind of problem, don’t panic, but you might want to have him or her see a doctor.
Other Funny Examples from Readers
“I shall never forget the day I was reciting the names of the three Rice Krispies guys....Crap, Snackle, & Pop.” — English Prof's Daughter
“I'll never forget when my five-year old nephew asked me for the Parmesan cheese for his pizza. Since I don't hear well, I asked him to repeat what he said. He leaned closer to me and shouted, ‘Where is the Farmer John cheese?’” —RaysAunt
“My boss thought the Hoodoo Guru's song was 'I've a dog called Theodore' not 'My girl don't love me no more'.” — Chelly
“I once entered a store and asked the sales clerk if they carried unfurnished finiture instead of unfinished furniture. My husband once asked, ‘Is the smoke kitchy?’"— Kathy
“Hold me closer, Tony Danza.”— Mindi
“Don't forget that Cheap Trick told us, ‘The dream police, they come to pee in my bed.’” :P —Michael
“Don't forget the chapter in Ramona the Pest where Ramona tries to find out what a donzer is after hearing about the "donzerly light" in the national anthem.” — Jenny
The song "It's a Mistake" by Men at Work always sounds like "It's Amish Day" to me. I always sing it that way! — Michelle
“Whenever George W Bush says nuclear weapons, I always hear it as new killer weapons, no matter how hard I listen.”— Chris Murray
“My favorite mondegreen is the one about the forest creature named "Gladly" who had poor vision: Gladly, the cross-eyed bear.” — John David Herman
1. Hat tip for the “little fit bunny” example goes to a commenter who went by “Moose.”
2. Wikipedia contributors. “Spoonerisms.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spoonerism (accessed August 4, 2019).
3. “spoonerism.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/spoonerism (accessed August 4, 2019).
4. Liberman, M. “Egg Corns: Folk Etymology, Malapropism, Mondegreen, ???” LanguageLog.com. September 23, 2003. http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000018.html (accessed August 4, 2019).
5. Kristopher. “Dogberry and his Malapropisms.” Much Ado About Nothing and Everything Else Shakespearean. February 5, 2008. http://everythingshakespearekristophermiller.blogspot.com/2008/02/dogberry-and-his-malapropisms.html (accessed August 4, 2019).
Stoopnagle's Tale is Twisted: Spoonerisms Run Amok by Keen James
The Rails I Tote by Christopher Manson
Runny Babbit, a Billy Sook by Shel Silverstein
Far From the Madding Gerund by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum
'Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy by Gavin Edwards
When a Man Loves a Walnut by Gavin Edwards
He's Got the Whole World in His Pants by Gavin Edwards
The Rivals by Richard Sheridan
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.