It’s rare to be able to pinpoint the very first use of a word, but we can with mondegreen. In a 1954 article in Harper’s Magazine, Sylvia Wright describes how, when she was a child, her mother would read to her a Scottish ballad, which began “They hae slain the Earl Amurray, / And Lady Mondegreen.”
Wright explains that she had a vivid mental image of this beautiful, brave woman, and was sorely disappointed when she learned that the lady is not, in fact, part of the poem – when they killed the earl, they “laid him on the green.” Thus mondegreen became a term for “a word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung.”
Though the word is quite recent, the phenomenon is not.
Renaissance dramatists loved mondegreens. Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” for example, features a whole scene of them, when the innkeeper Mistress Quickly has trouble understanding a Latin lesson and interprets pulcher (“beautiful”) as “polecats.”
Sigmund Freud thought that some mondegreens – verhören (“mishearing”) in German – were the aural equivalent of the better-known “Freudian slips.” He theorized that such mistakes represent suppressed emotions or anxieties. If a man hears “bald egg” instead of “boiled egg,” for example, Freudians might assume that he is embarrassed about losing his hair.
Linguists, however, argue that such errors are a result of how we make sense of what we hear. In noisy restaurants, we might find it hard to make out which sounds our companion is producing. In this case, we have to make some guesses. Which words do the sounds most resemble? What is the context of the conversation? What is our friend likely to say?
University of Pennsylvania professor Mark Liberman explains, “There’s a piece of what we understand that comes from the sound that comes in our ear,” but “there’s a piece of what we understand that comes from [our] expectations.” If you hear something like “eesees” and are discussing candy, you might think “Reese’s”; if you are talking about ecology, “species” might come to mind instead.
Linguist Steven Pinker points out that some mondegreens challenge this theory of speech perception, since they “do not bear out any sane listener’s general expectations.” One recent example is from 2014’s “Blank Space,” where millions of people heard Taylor Swift singing “All the lonely Starbucks lovers” instead of her actual line, “Got a long list of ex-lovers.”
Perhaps wildly misheard lyrics like these reveal more about our expectations for pop stars – they might say anything – than about language processing. And, as Shakespeare understood, sometimes it’s just more fun to get it wrong.