What’s a mondegreen?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: mondegreen.

I learned a new word last week, as a result of my recent obsession with podcasts. Sadly, I can no longer remember which program I heard it on (I believe it likely came from either The Allusionist or The World in Words) and I foolishly failed to take notes. But the word was mondegreen.

A mondegreen, as the host told us, occurs when someone listens to a song, mishears the lyric and substitutes words that sound similar, so as to make some kind of sense. American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in 1954 in a Harper’s Magazine essay about the Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl O’ Moray.”

Familiar as a child with the ballad,

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And laid him on the green.

Wright had always substituted the words “Lady Mondegreen” for the fourth line because she didn’t want the Earl to die alone.

You, too, are likely familiar with mondegreens. Here are some popular ones from contemporary music:

Simon & Garfunkel: Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Mondegreen: Are you going to starve an old friend?

The Beatles: All my loving, I will send to you.
Mondegreen: All my luggage, I will send to you.

Bachman-Turner Overdrive: Taking care of business.
Actual lyric: Baking carrot biscuits

Bee Gees: More than a woman.
Mondegreen: Bald headed woman.

The Four Seasons: Big girls don’t cry.
Mondegreen: Big girl, small fry.

KC & The Sunshine Band: Do a little dance, name a little love, get down tonight, get down tonight
Mondegreen: Do a little dance, make a little rum, Italian Ice! Italian Ice!

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