Most people have probably listened to a song and, unable to clearly hear a lyric, replaced the correct words with something that sounds similar, whether it makes much sense or not. This is known as a mondegreen, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung.”
The word “mondegreen” was coined in 1954 by the American writer Sylvia Wright. In an essay for Harper’s Magazine, Wright explained how, when she was a child, her mother would read to her from the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, a book of poems and ballads. One of her favorite poems contained the lines, They hae slain the Earl Amurray, / And laid him on the green.” Wright, however, misheard “laid him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen.” The words stuck in her mind and made sense. And from this the word “mondegreen” was born — the word itself being a mondegreen.
Children are a particularly rich source of mondegreens, and it’s not uncommon for school kids to butcher the pledge of allegiance or the National Anthem (“José, can you see…”). But adults are also highly susceptible, especially when it comes to songs — and especially when the singer has a habit of singing indistinctly, like Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain or R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, both of whom appear below. This has led to some classic and widespread mondegreens from famous songs, with unexpectedly funny results.
Incorrect: The girl with colitis goes by
Correct: The girl with kaleidoscope eyes
— “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” by The Beatles
One of The Beatles’ most beautiful lines has unfortunately been misheard by many people, introducing a totally incongruous inflammatory bowel disease into an otherwise lovely song.
Incorrect: ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy
Correct: Scuse me while I kiss the sky
— “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix
Listeners have been getting this one wrong since the song’s release in 1967, but even Hendrix sang the confused lines occasionally. He’d sometimes sing “kiss this guy” during live concerts, while pointing at drummer Mitch Mitchell.
Incorrect: Wrapped up like a douche
Correct: Revved up like a Deuce
— “Blinded By the Light” by Manfred Mann
Manfred Mann’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded By the Light” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in1977, giving rise to one of the strangest mondegreens in rock history. Springsteen himself joked about it, saying, “Deuce was like a Little Deuce Coupe, as in a two-seater hot rod. Douche is a feminine hygienic procedure. But what can I say, the public spoke.”
Incorrect: Alex the seal
Correct: Our lips are sealed
— “Our Lips Are Sealed” by The Go-Go’s
Sadly, Belinda Carlisle’s upbeat vocals are not about a seal named Alex. But try telling that to people in Australia, who were convinced the song (actually about vicious gossip) was indeed a tribute to a semi-aquatic marine mammal.
Incorrect: There’s a bathroom on the right
Correct: There’s a bad moon on the rise
— “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Directions to the nearest bathroom are always useful, but that wasn’t the intention in Creedence’s classic song. The misunderstood line is so common that lead singer John Fogerty sometimes sings the lyric for fun during live performances.
Incorrect: I got my first real sex dream
Correct: I got my first real six-string
— “Summer of ‘69” by Bryan Adams
This line has been misheard in all kinds of ways, with six-string (a reference to a guitar) being variously replaced by sex dream, G-string, sex thing, and sex change.
Incorrect: Like a virgin, touched for the thirty-first time
Correct: Like a virgin, touched for the very first time
— “Like a Virgin” by Madonna
Anyone who thinks these are the real lyrics must be seriously confused about what’s going on in one of Madonna’s most defining songs, and her first number one hit.
Incorrect: Hold me closer, Tony Danza
Correct: Hold me closer, tiny dancer
— “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John
No, Elton John did not write a wistful, pining song about the star of the TV shows Taxi and Who’s the Boss? The lyrics were written by Elton’s long-time collaborator Bernie Taupin, and are actually about his then-wife, Maxine Feibelman. Sorry, Tony.
Incorrect: It doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not
Correct: It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not
— “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi
Bon Jovi’s chart-topping single from 1986 isn’t a rallying cry for naturists everywhere. It’s actually about a working-class couple who struggle to make ends meet.
Incorrect: Calling Jamaica
Correct: Call me when you try to wake her
— “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” by R.E.M.
In 2010, Michael Stipe’s high-velocity singing of the words “Call me when you try to wake her” was voted the most frequently misheard by listeners in a U.K. poll.
Incorrect: A year has passed since I broke my nose
Correct: A year has passed since I wrote my note
— “Message in a Bottle” by The Police
This song is basically the story of a castaway on an island. But the castaway never broke his nose, as far as we know.
Incorrect: Here we are now, in containers
Correct: Here we are now, entertain us
— “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana
Nirvana’s anthem for apathetic kids is one of the most popular songs of all time. Still, plenty of people wondered why the grunge kids were in containers.
Incorrect: I said maybe… you’re gonna be the one at Sainsbury’s
Correct: I said maybe… you’re gonna be the one that saves me
— “Wonderwall” by Oasis
Liam Gallagher was looking for salvation, not for someone wandering around in the U.K.’s second-largest chain of supermarkets.
Incorrect: Got a lot of Starbucks lovers
Correct: Got a long list of ex-lovers
— “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift
The second single from Taylor Swift’s Grammy-winning album 1989 caused some confusion among fans and a lot of free publicity for Starbucks. Even Swift’s mother agreed that it sounded a lot like “Starbucks lovers.”
Incorrect: I’m farting carrots, I’m farting carrots
Correct: I’m on my 14 carats, I’m 14 carat
— “Good for You” by Selena Gomez
U.K. listeners were so confused by Selena Gomez’ seemingly gaseous opening line that radio DJ Scott Mills asked her about it live on air. The line actually refers to 14 carat diamonds.