What Is It Called When You Mishear Song Lyrics?

Have you ever made a mistake like thinking "Excuse me while I kiss the sky" was "Excuse me while I kiss this guy"? That's called a mondegreen. Read on about other types of funny mishearings and mistakes, including spoonerisms, malapropisms, and eggcorns.

Mignon Fogarty,
July 12, 2013
Episode #375

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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 lots of great mondegreens from popular music. I like these two from Toto and Cyndi Lauper: mistaking I blessed the rains down in Africa for I guess it rains down in Africa, and mistaking When the working day is done, Girls, they want to have fun for What in the world can they get done? Girls, they want to have fun.

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.

If you like mondegreens, Gavin Edwards has written a series of books about them, including 'Scuse Me While I Kiss This Guy, When a Man Loves a Walnut, and He's Got the Whole World in His Pants.

I like to imagine the mythical Lady Mondegreen happily singing along.


Eggcorns were first identified as a separate phenomenon 10 years ago and got their name from a discussion on the Language Log website about a woman who misheard the word acorn as eggcorn. (4) Such a change isn't a mondegreen because it doesn't create a new meaning, and it isn't a spoonerism (or a malapropism) because the swapped words sound the same—they're homophones or near homophones.

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 H-E-R-E for H-E-A-R in hear, hear (it’s spelled hear because it mean something like “hear him, hear him”),  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.


Finally, I’ll talk about malapropisms. The name comes from a French phrase meaning “badly for the purpose.” It came into popular usage 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 said, “He's the very pineapple of politeness” instead of “He's 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) 


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