A joke about the national anthem is a good example of a mondegreen. It’s something you may have experienced without knowing the term.
Have you ever heard a phrase and later realized you didn’t hear what you thought? Or have you ever listened to a song and thought the singer was saying one thing, only to learn you misheard the lyrics? Both serve as examples of the mondegreen. It’s simply mishearing a popular phrase or lyric.
The ear is the worst receptor of information. Typically, we hear something once (unless we ask for it to be repeated) and we have to hope we can rely on what our brain processed.
I’m reminded of an old game we played a few times in first grade. I’m not sure why we played it, other than to kill time. But I don’t think there was any real lesson that anyone was trying to teach with the playing. The class would sit in a large circle. The teacher would whisper a sentence to the first student, who would then whisper the same phrase to the second. The second would whisper that same phrase to the third. On it went around the circle. By the time it reached the last student, who then said out loud what he or she had just heard, there was no telling what they might come up with. Depending on how soon things began to go awry, the first few students would chuckle because they would hear how far things differed. But more than one student might have heard something incorrectly. So midway through the circle a second or third or even fourth mondegreen might have occurred.
Where the term ‘mondegreen’ originated
Appropriately enough, the term was coined by an actual mishearing of a song lyric. It traces its origin to the writer Sylvia Wright. Wright, as the story goes, listened to the old Scottish ballad “The Bonny Earl of Murray” and had believed that one stanza went like this:
Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands
Oh where hae you been?
They hae slay the Earl of Murray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
But that last line didn’t make any mention of a “Lady Mondegreen.” The actual line in the song was, “and lay him on the green.” A true grammarian, of course, would object to the verb lay. Lay is the past tense of lie. A person who reclines lies on the green and if it’s past tense, you could say that person lay on the green. But since the body was placed there, the lyric should have been “laid him on the green.”
But no matter how persnickety you get over the verb, there was no Lady Mondegreen to be found anywhere in the song.
The ‘Star Spangled Banner’ mondegreen joke
It’s a corny joke, but it still gives another good example. Friends of a man named José ask him how he enjoyed his first American baseball game. He tells them enthusiastically that he loved it. He especially appreciated everyone singing to him and asking if he could see the field.
It may take those who hear the joke for the first time — if there are any left, since it’s an old joke — time to process that they’re talking about the opening line of the “Star Spangled Banner.” It begins not with, “José, can you see,” of course, but “Oh, say, can you see.”
I told you it was corny.
You may know the term by a different name
A while back, I told you about a curious term called the eggcorn. That’s another name for the same thing: the mishearing of something. And yes, spellcheck still wants to flag both words as non-words.
It’ll learn one day.
You can think of mishearings like “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes,” or “tow the line” instead of “toe the line, or even the phrase “butt naked” instead of “buck naked,” (though the former at least makes sense) as perfect examples.
For song lyric confusion, one of the most famous examples is the mishearing of a line in Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” Instead of “hold me closer, tiny dancer,” some have thought the line was, “Hold me closer, Tony Danza.” Well, if you’re an admirer of the Who’s the Boss? actor, you might wish he’d hold you closer. But given the name of the song is what’s being misheard, you’d think few people would make the mistake.
But, as I said, the ear is our worst receptor of information. So it’s easy to hear the wrong thing even when you try to hear exactly what’s being said (or sung).