“I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the Republic of Richard Stands, one nation under God, invisible with liberty and justice for all.”
Every morning when my elementary class stood at attention and solemnly recited the Pledge of Allegiance, I would secretly wonder who Richard Stands was and if the invisibility was just for him or if I and all my classmates were already invisible to visitors from other countries. I was too embarrassed to ask my teachers about it; I felt like it was something I should already know. Instead, I would peek at my classmates out of the corner of my eye, trying to catch one of them in the act of disappearing.
Although looking back I shake my head at the number of times I unwittingly mispledged myself, mishearing words in poems and songs is actually quite common. In fact, there is a name for it: mondegreens. The word “mondegreen” is itself named for a mondegreen.
In 1954, Silvia Wright wrote an article for Harper’s Magazine where she examined a childhood poem that her mother used to read to her, called “The Bonny Earl of Murray.” For years, what little Silvia heard was:
“Ye Highlands and ye Lawlands
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl of Murray
And Lady Mondegreen.”
Growing up, Silvia imagined a dramatic scene resulting in the death of Lady Mondegreen. Much like Richard Stands, it turns out Lady Mondegreen only existed in the mind of the listener. The actual last line of the poem reads “And laid him on the green.”
My favorite quality of mondegreens is the unabashed way that children will loudly belt them out. I think this is probably a combination of limited vocabulary skills and an effect of not yet having learned the finer points of embarrassment. Particularly in danger of misinterpretation are church hymns and Christmas carols, since they utilize antiquated language rarely heard in everyday conversation. A few of my favorite mondegreens I’ve heard from kids are “Olive the other reindeer,” “Silent night, holy night/All is calm, all is bright./ Round John Virgin, margarine child…”, “Our Father whose art is in Heaven, Howard be thy name….”
While children’s misunderstood lyrics and words are adorable, really anyone is susceptible to this slip of the ear. Mondegreens are particularly populous when you’re listening to music that isn’t necessarily your favorite. Country music and rap music have distinct dialects that take a trained ear to properly penetrate and interpret. Very recently, I thought The Band Perry was asking to be “buried inside.” I passingly found that a strange request, until I heard my husband sing “bury me in satin.”
What are some of your most infamous mondegreens? Do you find they happen mostly in emerging music or do you discover that you’ve been singing it wrong for years?