Misheard lyrics and mondegreens

Jule Styne (writer of ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’, ‘Three Coins in a Fountain’, and ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!’) famously said: “A song without words is just a piece of music.” The singer’s job is to make sure those words both be heard, and also be understood. That’s not just about interpretation. It is also about good, old-fashioned, clear pronunciation. If, as listeners, we can’t make out the words, then we don’t know what the song is about. ‘Misheard lyrics’ is a great game to play, and the comedian Peter Kay does a wonderful sketch with some. I’ve created a list of some these in this article, complete with links to YouTube so you can hear the original performances. Singers, beware! We have to pronounce clearly, or confusion will reign (rain?) …

The fancy name for a misheard lyric is a mondegreen. The term was coined by Sylvia Wright in an article called ‘The Death of Lady Mondegreen’ (Harper’s November 1954). Wright pointed out the problem in a 17th century ballad, ‘The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray’: “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray, and Lady Mondegreen” (“and laid him on the green”). Since then, Wright’s term ‘mondegreen’ has entered our dictionaries.

Sometimes the singer pronounces the words sloppily, but there are other reasons that words can be misheard. There are homonyms, where words sound the same, such as ‘where’ and ‘wear’. A particular type of homonym is the oroynm, where syllables can be grouped in different ways, such as in ‘I scream’ and ‘ice cream’, or ‘pullet surprise’ and ‘Pullitzer Prize’. Lyricists should not be writing homonyms as it’s impossible for the performer to make the lyric sound correct. However, a good singer can solve the problem of an oronym by grouping and separating syllables appropriately. Another problem, the McGurk Effect, happens when one letter sounds much like another, like ‘b’ and ‘g’ – watch the BBC video clip to see/hear an example.

Some misheard lyrics
  • Adele – ‘Chasing Pavements‘ – “Should I just give up chasing penguins?” (“pavements”)
  • Arlen & Harburg, ‘Over The Rainbow‘: “weigh a pie” (way up high”)
  • Arthur Hamilton, ‘Cry Me A River’: “Crimea River”
  • Benjamin Britten, ‘Oliver Cromwell‘: “There grew an old lavatory over his head” (“There grew an old apple tree over his head”)
  • Billy Joel, “She’s Got A Way“: “She’s got away” [The phrase is the first half of “she’s got a way about her” so it makes sense in the song, but the title leaves the second part out, and changes the meaning significantly.]
  • Billy Steinberg & Tom Kelly, ‘Alone‘: “I want to get you a loan” (“I want to get you alone”)
  • Bob Dylan, ‘Blowin’ In The Wind‘: “The ants are my friends, they’re blowin’ in the wind” (“The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind”)
  • Bon Jovi, ‘Livin’ On A Prayer‘: “It doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not” (“It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not”)
  • Celine Dion, ‘My Heart Will Go On’: “The hot-dogs go on” (“The heart does go on”)
  • Duffy, ‘Mercy‘: “begging you for birdseed” (“begging you for mercy”)
  • Fanny Crosby, ‘Keep Thou My Way’ (hymn): “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear” (“Gladly the cross I’ll bear”)
  • George Frederick Handel, “Comfort ye, my people” – tenor solo, ‘Messiah’: “Come for tea, my people” (and just to show how tricky it is, here’s another attempt, and yet another!!)
  • Don Henley, Glenn Frey, ‘Lyin’ Eye’s’: “You can’t hide those lion eyes.”
  • Jimi Hendrix, ‘Purple Haze‘: “Scuse me while I kiss this guy” (“Scuse me while I kiss the sky”)
  • Lady Gaga, ‘Poker Face’ – “poke her face”
  • Madonna, ‘Like a Virgin’: “Like a virgin… touched for the thirty-first time” (“touched for the very first time”)
  • Michael Jackson, ‘You are not alone’: “Your burgers are the best” (“Your burdens I will bear”)
  • Sister Sledge, ‘We are family’: “Just let me staple the vicar” (“Just let me state for the record”)
  • The Bangles, ‘Manic Monday‘: “Doesn’t it matter that I have to feed the buffalo some parmesan” (“Doesn’t it matter that I have to feed the both of us – employment’s down”)
  • The Cars, ‘Drive’: “Pork pie” (“walk by”)
And some dodgier mondegreens ….
  • Babyface, ‘Every time I close my eyes’: “And every time I think of it I p**s myself” (“And every time I think of it I pinch myself”)
  • KD Lang, ‘Constant Craving’: “Maybe a great magnet pulls a**eholes” (“Maybe a great magnet pulls all souls to what’s true”)
  • Kendrick Lamar, ‘B*tch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’: “Fish don’t kill my vibe”; also “Sometimes I need to p*e alone” (“sometimes I need to be alone”)
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