Notice: All forms on this website are temporarily down for maintenance. You will not be able to complete a form to request information or a resource. We apologize for any inconvenience and will reactivate the forms as soon as possible.

Dead Ants Are My Friend

Okay, admit it: at one time or another you sang a song but messed up the lyrics. Instead of singing the classic hymn “Reign On, O King Eternal,” you sang, “Rain on the kinky turtle.” Instead of the grand old “Gladly the Cross I’d Bear” you sang, “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear.” (And what kid wouldn’t want Gladly as a cute pet?)

These misheard words are called “mondegreens,” a term coined by Harper’s writer Sylvia Wright, who, in a 1954 column, wrote the wrong lyrics to a Scottish ballad she’d learned as a child. Commenting on “The Bonny Earl of Murray,” she wrote:

They ha’e slain the Earl of Murray,
And Lady Mondegreen

For years Wright was taken by the tragic tale of the good lady who died alongside her liege. The problem is, the real lyrics are:

They ha’e slain the Earl of Murray,
And they laid him on the Green.

Upon learning that her fabled lady never existed — in song or in reality — Wright coined the word in her honor.

Of course, mondegreens do not have to come from songs. Many a child has prayed for his “jelly bread” or pledged allegiance to the flag of the “Republic of Richard Stans.” And one woman I know for years thought really expensive things cost “a nominal egg.” (She grew up on Long Island; think about it.)

Classic mondegreens can be found in Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon on the Rise,” which was heard by many to say, “There’s a bathroom on the right.” Or Jimi Hendrix’s line in “Purple Haze”: “‘scuse me while I kiss the sky,” which became, “‘scuse me while I kiss this guy.”

Or the classic Cuban love song “Guantanamera” became “One Ton Tomato.” (Weird Al, are you listening?)

The universal tendency to create mondegreens -– yes, they exist in other languages, too -– I think points to the human mind’s desire to create order from disorder. Badly heard words are forced into some semblance of order, no matter how silly. It’s the same as staring at the wood grain on a door, the stucco pattern on the ceiling or clouds in the sky; our minds start to see faces or animals in the random patterns. There’s a larger theological truth in that, too. We were created by an orderly God in His image, and we crave order in a seriously disordered world.

What are your favorite mondegreens, spoken or sung? Oh, and a hundred Extra-Special Brownie Points to the first person who knows the mondegreen that makes up this post’s title.

Share This Post:

Related Content