An ongoing series of letters in the Sydney Morning Herald recently has been discussing the strange words people think they hear in verse and songs. It all started with one person asking what ‘gibbous’ meant, in reference to a gibbous moon. (To put that to rest early, gibbous refers to the moon when it is more than half full but not yet completely full).

Some wit responded to the enquiry that the word originates in the Lord’s Prayer – ‘Gibbous this day our daily bread’. Other amateur comedians leapt in with such classics as ‘Freezer jolly good fellow’ and the like.

These are examples of a unique phenomenon known as a ‘mondegreen’ (sometimes mondagreen). This term, which encompasses all such mis-heard phrases, comes from the American writer Sylvia Wright who coined it in an essay “The Death of Lady Mondegreen”, which was published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1954. She wrote:

“When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques. One of my favorite poems began, as I remember:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl Amurray
And Lady Mondegreen.”

The actual line is “And laid him on the green”. It comes from an anonymous 17th Century ballad called ‘The Bonnie Earl O’Murray’. Wright goes on to call any such misinterpretation a mondegreen and a new word was born.

Perhaps one of the most famous modern mondegreens is from that great classic by Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze – ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy!’ The correct line is, of course, ‘Excuse me while I kiss the sky’.

One for the Americans here, with their National Anthem often considered an ode to Jose. Comedian Bill Dana played a Hispanic character Jose Jimenez and claimed an entire stadium were singing directly to him before a ballgame, “José, can you see?”

The American Pledge of Allegiance is a minefield of mondegreens:

I pledge a lesion to the flag, of the United State of America, and to the republic for Richard Stans, one naked individual, with liver tea and just this for all.

You’ll notice that this is the original Pledge. Contrary to popular opinion, the words ‘under god’ were added by an American army Colonel in the 1950’s. But that could equally have been mondergreened to ‘one naked underdog’ or something similar.

I had my own embarrassing episode many years ago when I experienced a multiple mondegreen pile-up. A friend of mine was enthusiastically singing along to a Metallica song and he yelled, “Temperature!” for the key line. Laughing loudly, I corrected him. “It’s not temperature, you idiot. It’s Saboteur!” To which a third friend fell about laughing and finally managed to catch breath and correct us both. The line (in fact the title of the song) is ‘Sad But True’. I maintain to this day that I was a lot closer. I mean, really – temperature?

Another personal favourite is “The girl with colitis goes by” from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by The Beatles, which should be, as I’m sure you all know, “The girl with kaleidoscope eyes”.

Feel free to share any of your own mondegreens and remember, it’s quite possible that there are a bunch of them swimming around in your mind that you’re not even aware of yet. Sad, but true.