by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
© July, 2015
Our brains are marvelous organs. They are always trying to make sense out of what we hear. Thus, when we miss something, they try to fill in the gaps in what we misheard with something that seems to make sense, even if it doesn’t really make sense—if that makes sense.
As a result, we may be listening to a song on the radio and because of our faulty hearing, mishear some words—they actually sound like gibberish at the moment—but our brains take what we have already heard and understood, and rework the “gibberish” with similar-sounding words to come up with a plausible rendition of what we missed. The results are often totally off the wall, but make sense to us in a “funny” kind of way.
This happens to hearing people too of course, but it is ever so much more common among us hard of hearing people. When such bloopers are done with song lyrics, they go by the fancy name of “mondegreens”.
The origin of this term is rather fascinating. Here’s how it all began. American writer Sylvia Wright (1917-1981) explained, “When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favorite poems” (1) was the 17th century Scottish ballad, “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray”. She continued, “As I remember, the first stanza began”:
“Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen”.
Years later, in her essay “The Death of Lady Mondegreen”, published in Harper’s magazine in November, 1954, she described “the bonny Earl holding the beautiful Lady Mondegreen’s hand, both bleeding profusely but faithful unto the death”. (1)
Imagine her surprise when she eventually learned that Lady Mondegreen existed only in her imagination. The correct words for the last two lines of the stanza really were:
“They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And laid him on the green”.
She had completely misheard the last line and her brain came up with, “And Lady Mondegreen”!
As a result, since the year 2000, the phantom “Lady Mondegreen’s” name has been immortalized in English dictionaries and is used to describe all mishearings of this type.
“Mondegreens are a sort of aural malapropism. Instead of saying the wrong word, you hear the wrong word or words. The word mondegreen is generally used for misheard song lyrics, although technically it can apply to any speech.” (2)
Mondegreen is defined as a “misunderstood or misinterpreted word or phrase resulting from a mishearing of the lyrics of a song”. Another definition of a mondegreen is a “mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase as a result of near-homophony, in a way that gives it a new meaning”. In plain English, this means we fill in the missing words with other words that sound much the same, but the words are completely different and as a result, so is the meaning.
Mondegreens are most often inadvertently created when you are listening to a poem or a song that is not quite loud enough or clear enough. The result is that your brain substitutes words that sound somewhat similar, and yet still make some kind of sense.
Here is an example. When my wife was a teen, a new song was released called “Bad Moon Rising”. The chorus went:
Don’t go around tonight,
Well, it’s bound to take your life,
There’s a bad moon on the rise.
But my wife always heard the last line as, “There’s a bathroom on the right”!
Unfortunately, because we hard of hearing people may not hear the full range of human speech, some syllables may sound totally different or be missing entirely. Our brains “co-operate” and fill in the missing parts with their “best guess”, but so often it is wrong. As a result, we end up with “knowing” things that are not right.
I remember as a little guy—before I could read—singing hymns in church, but what I sang was apparently not what everyone else was singing! It wasn’t until some years later when I could read that I realized that what I had been singing wasn’t right at all.
It’s scary to think of how much of what we learned by hearing at home, in school and in church could be totally wrong—and we don’t have a clue.
That is why we hard of hearing people need to check our facts visually to be sure our brains didn’t do a number on us with yet another mondegreen.