We have all heard them—or misheard them: “There’s a bathroom on the right” (for “There’s a bad moon on the rise,” from “Bad Moon Rising,” by Creedence Clearwater Revival); “Might as well face it, you’re a dick with a glove” (for “Might as well face it, you’re addicted to love,” from “Addicted to Love” by Robert Palmer); and perhaps the most famous of all, “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy,” (for “’Scuse me while I kiss the sky,” from “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix). That last mishearing was so prevalent, legend has it that Jimi himself would occasionally stop and kiss a guy after singing this line in concert. If you have ever wondered what these mishearings are called, now you know: they’re mondegreens. According to William Safire of The New York Times, the term mondegreen dates from a 1954 magazine article by Sylvia Wright in which she said she had misheard the folk lyric “and laid him on the green” as “and Lady Mondegreen.”
To show that you may not be alone in this, the website Kiss This Guy (www.kissthisguy.com) has listed more than 1,300 misheard lyrics have been submitted by Web visitors to their archive. The name of the site is taken from the aforesaid Hendrix song. Another popular ditty, which offended a woman I knew to no end, was in Manfred Mann’s Earth Band cover of Bruce Springsteen’s song “Blinded by the Light.” Chances are that you too may have misheard the lyric “revved up like a deuce” (altered from Springsteen’s original “cut loose like a deuce”) as wrapped up like a douche.” Both lyrics, by the way, refer to the hot rodders slang for a 1932 Ford coupé. Springsteen has even joked about the phenomenon, claiming that it was not until Manfred Mann rewrote it to be about a feminine hygiene product that the song became popular.
Some other mondegreens listed on the website include “Take your pants down, and make it happen” (for “Take your passion and make it happen,” from “Flashdance” by Irene Cara); “Every time you go away/you take a piece of meat with you” (for “…take a piece of me with you,” from “Every Time You Go Away” by Paul Young); “Let’s pee in the corner. Let’s pee in the spotlight,” (for “That’s me in the corner. That’s me in the spotlight,” from “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M.); and “My anus is the center hole” (from “My angel is a centerfold” by J. Geils Band.
Meanwhile, the 1963 song “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen was so difficult to understand, because of how poorly the Kingsmen’s version of it was recorded, that many people suspected the song contained obscenities. One concerned parent misheard the lines from the verse “Me see Jamaica moon above./It won’t be long me see me love./Me take her in my arms and then/I tell her I never leave again.” as “She had a rag on, she moved above./It won’t be long, she’ll slip it off./I held her in my arms and then,/and I told her I’d rather lay her again.” The woman actually sent a formal complaint to the FBI. Since no lyrics were ever officially published for the song, the FBI concluded that the lyrics were unintelligible—but only after two years of investigation!
Interestingly, a survey at Kiss This Guy found that 77 percent of those who had submitted mondegreens believed their versions were better than the originals, and 40 percent said they had convinced others that their lyrics were the correct ones. Even Steven Pinker has gotten into the act, so to speak. He observed that while mondegreen mishearings tend to be less plausible than the original lyrics, once a listener has tuned into to a particular interpretation of a song’s lyrics, it can remain unquestioned. Pinker gives the example of a student who stubbornly misheard the chorus to “I’m Your Venus” as “I’m your penis,” and being surprised that the song was allowed on the radio. Pinker should have told him to put it in a glove.