“A mondegreen /ˈmɒndɪɡriːn/ is a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase in a way that gives it a new meaning. Mondegreens are most often created by a person listening to a poem or a song; the listener, being unable to clearly hear a lyric, substitutes words that sound similar and make some kind of sense.
“Mondegreen” was included in the 2000 edition of the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, and in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2002. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary added the word in 2008.
In a 1954 essay in Harper’s Magazine, Wright described how, as a young girl, she misheard the last line of the first stanza from the seventeenth-century ballad The Bonnie Earl O’ Moray. She wrote:
When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
The correct fourth line is, “And laid him on the green”. Wright explained the need for a new term:
The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.
People are more likely to notice what they expect than things not part of their everyday experiences; this is known as confirmation bias. Similarly, one may mistake an unfamiliar stimulus for a familiar and more plausible version. For example, to consider a well-known mondegreen in the song “Purple Haze”, one would be more likely to hear Jimi Hendrix singing that he is about to kiss this guy than that he is about to kiss the sky. Similarly, if a lyric uses words or phrases that the listener is unfamiliar with, they may be misheard as using more familiar terms.
The creation of mondegreens may be driven in part by cognitive dissonance, as the listener finds it psychologically uncomfortable to listen to a song and not make out the words. Steven Connor suggests that mondegreens are the result of the brain’s constant attempts to make sense of the world by making assumptions to fill in the gaps when it cannot clearly determine what it is hearing. Connor sees mondegreens as the “wrenchings of nonsense into sense”. This dissonance will be most acute when the lyrics are in a language the listener is fluent in.
On the other hand, Steven Pinker has observed that mondegreen mishearings tend to be less plausible than the original lyrics, and that once a listener has “locked in” to a particular misheard interpretation of a song’s lyrics, it can remain unquestioned, even when that plausibility becomes strained…”