Mondegreen: Definition and Examples for Writers

by Joe Bunting | 26 comments

I'm sure you're familiar with the game Telephone? A group of people get in a circle, and one person comes with a silly phrase like, “The Orange Monkey Eats Green Bananas.” Then, the phrase is whispered from one person to the other around the circle. Each person can only say the phrase once and the listener can't ask clarifying questions, like, “Did you mean Orange Monkey or Oral Moon Sea?” When the last person has to repeat the phrase, it's inevitably ridiculous, usually something like, “The Horrible Pokemon Seats Green Cabanas.”

People mishear things all the time, and the game telephone proves it. When something is misheard, the resulting word or phrase is called a mondegreen.

Mondegreen Definition

Photo by Phil Parker

The Definition of Mondegreen

We've covered mondegreen on The Write Practice in the past. Here's Liz on the subject:

The word “mondegreen” comes from an essay by Sylvia Wright, in which she retells the story of her mother reading poems out loud to her from Percy's Reliques, and she mishears “laid him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen”.

A mondegreen is a line that is misheard from poetry or song, or just a terrible sound system.

See the full post, 3 Dialogue Terms You Probably Didn't Know (but Should!).

Examples of Popular Mondegreens

This word came up this labor day weekend while talking about Iron Butterfly's 60's hit, “In a Gadda Da Vida.” Why does that song have such a weird name? Is it some Hinduism term? Was it gibberish that came to the psychedelic band during a drug-infused jam session? What they heck does Gadda Da Vida mean?

While reading the Wikipedia page, we discovered the band's drummer, Ron Bushy, misheard the lyrics while listening to the recording through headphones (drug use might indeed have helped this mishearing). The resulting mondegreen, said Wikipedia, “ stuck as the title.

So there you have it.

Also, there's another reason not to do drugs!

Other song lyric examples include Jimi Hendrix's lyric from “Kiss the Sky” being misheard as “kiss this guy”. There's even a whole online database dedicated to documenting lyrical mondegreens.

How about you? Have you ever misheard someone in a such a way as to create an amusing situation?

PRACTICE

Write a scene where one of the characters is constantly mishearing the other characters, creating numerous mondegreens in the process.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you're finished, share your practice with the writing community by post it in the comments section. And if you post, be sure to give feedback to your fellow writers.

Have fun!

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Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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26 Comments

  1. TheCody

    You know, I’m not a fan of current rap. I’m not a square or anything. Quite the opposite. Hearing nothing but songs about giant asses and weed and ‘busting caps’ gets old. The shock value is gone. Hearing about smoking out over and over and over makes the words waft around my head and fade to boredom like…well, smoke.

    That’s why I love that one song about birthdays. I’ve only heard it a couple times, so I’m not sure how popular it is. But the message is nice. The rapper in question is having a birthday, and the only he thing he wants are his friends. No weed, no sexy sluts, no guns. Just his friends.

    What a nice sentiment.

    Anyone can take a page out of that guy’s book. Last year, I’d hoped for a new Kindle and got a wallet instead. Seriously. I was so busy internal monologuing my disappointment (“See if I get you that Ninja blender for your birthday… no, you’re getting a pocket knife…”), I failed to register, really register, the people who’d attended. I think my three favorite coworkers were there. Maybe. I’m sure my brother was there. And my volleyball team was likely there.

    Who really knows?

    I should have paid attention, which is why the song resonates with me.

    “All I want for my birthday is for people to come.”

    The lyrics get stuck in my head for hours at a time. Drive me up the wall. But I accept them. I think my brain is trying to keep the thought in my head for my next birthday. When I unwrap that oversized keychain (instead of the new monitor I want), I’ll gain solace from the loved ones in attendance.

    “All I want for my birthday is for people to come.”

    I say them aloud on the train to work. I’m sure I look ridiculous, a paunchy middle-aged white man, rapping. I’m even moving my right hand up and down in ‘rappery’ fashion.

    A group of guys look at me. One is smiling. He’s wearing a shirt buttoned all the way to the neck. Very intimidating. I point at him, smiling, and repeat the words.

    “All I want for my birthday is for people to come.”

    I expect him to roll his eyes or maybe even join in.

    “Dude,” he says, putting his hands in his pockets, “I think you mean ‘All I want for my birthday is a big booty ho’.”

    He smiles but doesn’t rub it in. The doubt on my face assures him he’s already won.

    I act like nothing’s changed until they get off at the next stop. The instant the guy’s strutting away, I yank out my phone and YouTube the video. There’s an actual woman on a table, covered in whip cream. Her giant ass is the birthday cake.

    As I put up my phone, I can’t help but picture a cartoon G.I. Joe – ready to make his public service announcement – telling kids, “And killing is half the battle.”

    Reply
    • Avril

      Hee hee, too funny!

  2. Vivia

    Carefully unzipping her bag she placed her hand deep inside.

    “Knickers,” she said.

    “Knitters?” asked Lucy, “Why did you look for knitters in Andie’s Summer House?”

    “No, knickers, in Anne Summers, next to House of Fraser”

    “But I thought Fraser had moved back to Aberdeen,” Lucy was sounding fraught now. It wasn’t her fault that a severe attack of swimmer’s ear had left her in pain, with a horrible discharge dripping periodically onto her white t-shirt.

    “Have you had some anti-bs?” Clara looked at her, attempting empathy, but not succeeding.

    “No I’m sure it was Aberdeen he hasn’t worked in Antibes for years, her never took to the French lifestyle. Mind you I think he would have found it warmer there than Aberdeen.”

    “Have you seen the doctor yet? You should, you are becoming very deaf.”

    “No, he said it was a nasty infection but I’m no where near death – that would be silly,” Lucy picked up a tissue and started mopping at her ear, inspecting the outcome after each dab, relishing its rhubarb and custard like qualities.

    “I wish you wouldn’t do that, it’s gross,” Clara’s nose was pitching sideways fearing that the ear gunge would smell as bad as it looked.

    “It is close isn’t it, they are predicting a downpour by nine o’clock tonight. I had thought I would go for a swim but I don’t want to make this any worse than it is already.”

    “Oh, really, why ever not? – In for a penny, in for a pound”

    “Perfect, yes don’t make a sound”

    Reply
    • Avril

      I like your mondegreens, and thanks for the vivid description of ear goo. I was about to eat breakfast, but I’ll have to wait awhile!

  3. Jay Warner

    My childhood was fraught with mondegreens although my hearing was perfectly fine. The earliest instance of this phenomenon I remember came in a little song called “English Country Garden”. I had been given a .45rpm recording of the song sung by Jimmy Rodgers and I listened until the skips and pits and scratches made it nearly unplayable. I’ve hung onto it for 50 years now. In the song, Rodgers lists a number of birds and flowers that live in an English Country Garden. At the end of the list he says, “and those I miss you’ll surely pardon”. Somewhere in my mind I thought he was singing to a girl named Shirley. I heard “those… I miss you Shirley…pardon.” almost as though he paused mid-list to let Shirley know she was missed, and then “pardon” because
    he interrupted his list-making. Sometimes when I hear that song I still think he’s singing to Shirley.

    When I was five, I went to a Catholic kindergarten because there were no public kindergartens in my town. I was not Catholic but enthusiastically participated in every Catholic ritual they had to offer. I loved it when we sang hymns. I couldn’t sing worth
    a darn but I enjoyed it thoroughly. One day I came home singing very loudly, “Hey Mack do you love Mary?” This set my mother to wondering what kind of Catholic kindergarten was I attending? She asked the nuns the next day, what was this song and who was Mack and why was he being asked if he loved Mary? If nuns could blush, I am sure this one did, though I don’t remember. “No, no, “ she told my mother, gently resting her hand on my mother’s arm. “The song is Immaculate Mary”. I thought it sounded better my way. I graduated to “Onward Christian Soldiers” where they marched “with the
    cross-eyed Jesus going on before.” No one told me it was the cross of Jesus, and that his eyes were just fine.

    My sister and I used to get in huge arguments over Christmas carols. One wintery day while we were singing Jingle Bells in the car, my sister began to argue that the line went, “in a one horse, soap, and sleigh.” Very indignantly I corrected her but we continued to argue til our mother got tired of it and ordered us to stop. “One
    horse open sleigh” I said triumphantly. My sister pouted. Jingle Bells was never the same.

    Reply
    • 709writer

      Aww, that sister is so cute! This is interesting and I hope you’ll post more!

    • Avril

      Reminds me of the carols my brothers and I mangled all those years ago.

    • Jay Warner

      I think childhood works wonders on mondegreens.

  4. Bella

    I felt my phone vibrating in my pocket, pulling it out I saw the familiar face of my sister Elizabeth on the screen. I answered the phone and heard the metal tracks screaming as the subway next to her came to a stop. I had completely forgotten about her trip to New York until this moment. I said hello and she replied at the top of her lungs with a finger plugging her left ear that she was on her way to the florist as we spoke. Elizabeth was in New York because her best friend growing up was getting married that weekend. I asked her “what kind of flowers is she getting?” She couldn’t hear me over the sound of the train going by and thought I said “what day and hour is the wedding?”. So she replied “it’s on Saturday at 3:00 pm. I told you that on Tuesday! Why, are you planning on coming? It’s going to be a pretty small ceremony but I can ask—”

    “—no no! I didn’t ask when the wedding is, I asked what type of flowers she’s getting?”

    “I mean I wouldn’t call the venue a tower. It’s pretty small actually.”

    I gave up. “Never mind. Text me pictures if you get a chance.”

    Reply
    • 709writer

      Cool! I’d like to hear more about this. The dialogue seemed realistic. Keep up the good work!

    • Avril

      Clever!

  5. 709writer

    Johnny shut the door behind him. He gripped the knife’s handle, then raised the blade high. With a mighty swing and a loud yell, he brought the sharp knife down on the celery’s neck, freeing it of its leafy head.

    “Yo Dave,” Johnny yelled. “I’m about to skin the bananas.”

    His pal, Dave, sauntered into the room like he owned the place. “Don’t worry.” He held up his hand and made a ring with his thumb and pointer finger, winking at Johnny. “I’ve taken care of that rotten, fish-eating, egotistical–”

    “Don’t talk about yourself like that, Dave,” Sonic said as he walked into the room, juggling a few cans of Mountain Dew.

    “For your information, I was talking about the Wii.” Dave felt his eye twitch. “It erased my memory card for the last time.”

    Sonic continued to juggle the Mountain Dews. He yawned and glanced over at Dave. “You erase memory cards as a pastime? You must be bored.”

    “No, I said the Wii erased my memory card!”

    “That’s too bad,” Sonic said with a shake of his head. “I was hoping to beat your newest game in less than four hours.” He smirked. “And leave your golden track record of a speedy four hundred hours in the dust.”

    Dave rolled his eyes and turned to Johnny. “I’m blocking him out. If I can’t see Sonic, he does not exist in this, or any, dimension.”

    “Sounds plausible.” Johnny handed Dave some carrots and a peeler. “Let’s finish this stew before the others get here.”

    Sonic laughed and balanced one of the Mountain Dews on his nose. “I’m impressed, Dave. I was sure you’d lose your temper, and shove me out the window, then hurl a large, blunt object at me.”

    Dave dropped the peeler and carrot, spun around and grabbed an iron skillet, and aimed it at Sonic.

    “Maybe I’ll still do that,” Dave said. “If you don’t get out of my house.”

    Sonic flattened his eyebrows. “Yeah, this is Amy’s house.”

    “I said get out! Or else…”

    “Look, Dave, just calm down. Here,” Sonic said, extending a Mountain Dew, “have one.”

    Dave’s eyes bugged out. “I’ll kill you on that spot with my frying pan if you don’t–”

    “Chill me?” Sonic cracked a grin. “I’m the chillest guy around. You’re the one that needs to chill.”

    With a savage, blood-curdling war-cry that would have made even the most experienced killer cringe, Dave sprinted at Sonic and raised his frying pan over his head.

    I only used a few mondegreens, but I had fun the whole time. I’d love critique! : )

    Reply
    • Pedro Hernandez

      I absolutely adore this.

    • 709writer

      Aww, thank you!

    • Avril

      Good and funny. You quickly established three distinct characters and a scenario, and then you put mondegreens in the dialogue. Some good skills there.

    • 709writer

      Thanks!

  6. Chloee

    My eleven year old blue eyes stared out the car window. I stretched my fingers out and tried to capture the wind between them. I sang softly to the radio as “Do you like bean enchiladas.” blared though them. Things had been stressful the last couple of days with mom back in school and money issues and my family had just had enough so we went out for ice cream.

    my six other brothers and sisters either looking at books or if they were on the annoying side today due to lack of sleep were teasing each other. The song made me wonder though. Why was the man singing about dancing in the rain and asking the woman if she likes bean enchilada’s. “Hey mom!” I called out from the back seat of the passenger van.

    “Yes honey?” “Why does this dude keep asking this chick if she likes bean enchiladas?” My mom stared laughing hard while my ego had been bruised I boldly stared at her in the mirror. “It’s Pena acladias not bean enchiladas!” She gasped for air trying to calm down.

    “Oh that makes muxh more sense!” my brother poked me.

    “Do you like bean enchiladas?” my sister pipped up. “Or dancing in the hot sauce! my other sister stated to sing along all of out of tune though. “Or getting Taco Bell at midnight!” They kept singing as my mom and dad laughed. Sure it was at my own stupid misunderstanding but a bit of the tension had rise from my family. I could live with that

    Reply
    • Avril

      That is cute. I enjoyed imagining the whole family making up all the Mexican food words.

  7. Avril

    Tone Def and Aural Plugg have been best friends forever, though no one knows why, least of all themselves. They argue constantly. Just now they are sitting down to have a few beers, and sort out their most recent difficulty. Tone has brought his new lady friend along, hoping her cheerful personality will help the guys relax. As soon as Aural arrives, he is introduced to Sayit Agen. It’s an understatement to say he is pretty impressed. She is gorgeous, showing lots of cleavage, and wearing the most drastically large hoop earrings Aural has ever seen.

    Aural is very shy with the ladies, and all he can think to say is, “Wow, you have the biggest hoops I’ve ever seen!” Sayit starts cursing at him, and hitting him with her purse. Tone jumps over the table and punches Aural in the face! “Don’t you ever make a remark about her boobs! I don’t care how long we’ve been friends!”

    Aural has to do a lot of explaining, and finally convinces his friends that he said “hoops”. He’s actually a little hurt that they would even think for one minute he would be that creepy. “I am dumbfounded that you would judge me like that.”

    Aural immediately gets his back up. “Since when do you feel that you are being dumbdownded when I am conversing with you? You’re not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed.”

    This “reconciliation” is not going very well. Aural gets really hot, and swings the pitcher of beer at Tone, drenching him. “I am not a fool in the head! Apologize right now, or I will never speak to you again!”

    Sayit decides it is time to intervene, and get everyone to calm down. “Guys, guys, I just had an ephiphany! You are misunderstanding each other’s words! Just slow down and speak more clearly!” Now even Tone can’t be nice to her. “Why in the hell would you want to talk about an apostrophe at a time like this?”

    Sayit is so furious, she storms out of the bar. Tone hugs Aural and says, “She was a real troublemaker. We never had problems till she came along.” To which Aural replies, “You’re right, she is just like your mom.”

    Reply
    • Joe Bunting

      Haha. Wow, Avril. This was a riot. Well done!

    • Avril

      Thank you Joe!

    • Jay Warner

      nicely done!

  8. Dawn Atkin

    The party is in full swing. Dance beats thumping and everybody jumping. I’m exhausted. I need a seat.
    “Move over.”
    “What?”
    “I said move over. I need to sit down.”
    “What?”
    “I said move over. I live here. And I wanna sit down.”
    “Who.”
    “Oh for goodness sake. Move over. I live here.”
    “What are you talking about?”
    “I said I live here.”
    “What.”
    “I said. I. LIVE. HERE. I wanna seat. I. LIVE. HERE.”
    “Yeah, yeah. Right. I know you do.”
    “Well then?”
    “Yeah. Yeah. Sure. But who’s Olivia?”
    “What?”
    “Who is Olivia?”
    “What on earth are you on about. Move over. I live here.”
    “Alright. Chill out. Here have a seat. I don’t know no Olivia.”

    Reply
  9. Mirel

    Funny, in my WIP one of my characters has a few Mondegreens. I don’t remember them though, because he came up with them, not me. I was very impressed with him at the time.

    Although this week my grandson told me that I make the best pupcakes ever! No time to put it into a fresh story, I’ve got some writing I have to do for work.

    Reply
  10. Anne Peterson

    I had to try. Curiosity has killed more than one cat.

    Mike was in the service which meant roll call at 5:30 or some ungodly time. No I did not get up and make him breakfast, don’t judge.

    Well the night before we lay there in bed and were about to turn out the lights and I started giggling just thinking about my plan. Yes, I’m the one who once hid in the German wardrobe just to see his surprised look when he opened the door.

    And yes, I even donned his gas mask and hid under the covers to see that surprised look again.

    This was different. I wanted to prove a point about those little sponge things he’d squish in his ears at night. I wanted to see if I was right about the time he nodded as if he heard me when I knew otherwise. And so I was ready.

    It’s fun to do practical jokes that are innocent. I’m not one to put saran wrap on the toilet lid on April Fool’s Day. I know who’d be cleaning it up. I’m not one to put salt in the sugar bowl. I don’t need that kind of grief.

    This was different. It was an experiment if you will. One that would go in the “I knew it vault.” I always had room for more proof in that vault. Kind of proud of it, if I do say so myself, and I have.

    So I waited certain of his ritual. He would look over and tell me he loved me. It was as certain as rain on a picnic date.

    First he had to get up and lock the door. Then go back and check it. I learned if he asked me to lock it, it was senseless. He’d still do that checking thing. I’m a person.

    Or there was the time he asked me to pose on the couch for a picture as he held his almost new Olympus camera. “Just move a little to the left,” he said.

    I obliged, smile in place.

    A little more he said as he adjusted his camera on the tripod. I had no idea why he was using a tripod. I just foolishly smiled for the camera.

    And then he said, “Okay, now move,” as he took my place.

    It hit me when I realized he had his greens on. He just wanted to use me to focus for a great picture of himself!

    I had a thing of two to say about that. “Use a broom next time!” I heard myself yell.

    I do laugh now. Years somehow make things funnier.

    So there I was waiting in bed and he returned after checking the door. I’m assuming he looked over. Hard to tell in the dark cave-like room.

    “The elephants are coming,” I said to him.

    “I love you too,” he replied.

    Yes. This definitely was going in my vault. And the next time he tries telling me he can too hear me. Well I’ll just get it out.

    Reply
  11. GirlGriot

    Very late to the table with this comment/correction. Jimi Hendrix’s song referenced in this post is “Purple Haze.” The line — “Excuse me while I kiss the sky.” — is in the song but isn’t the title. As a deep-in-my-heart Hendrix fan, I just couldn’t sit idly by and let that one go!

    I’ve never heard this term before, but I love it. I’ve heard plenty of Mondegreens, but had no idea there was a name for them. Thanks!
    -Stacie

    Reply

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  1. 3 Dialogue Terms You Probably Didn’t Know (but Should!) - […] word “mondegreen” comes from an essay by Sylvia Wright, in which she retells the story of her mother reading…
  2. Posts I loved this week | Taylor Grace - […] post on how to write better dialogue on The Write Practice. And while you’re there check out this post on…

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