Dear Word Detective: I heard a word used to describe the substitution of song lyrics, those frequently encountered situations when someone has made up words that they thought were the lyrics but often are crazy substitutions. I wrote the word down when I heard it but have since misplaced the scrap of paper. I can only remember the last syllable sounded like “green.” (It’s the time of year when my husband sings Christmas carols with the horrible lyrics that he and his brothers made up.) — Kathy Jaworski.
Hey, a lot of carols could use new lyrics. When I was growing up, my parents taught us the improved version of one old chestnut, penned by Walt Kelly in his immortal “Pogo” comic strip: “Deck us all with Boston Charlie, Walla Walla, Wash., an’ Kalamazoo!, Nora’s freezin’ on the trolley, Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo! Don’t we know archaic barrel, Lullaby Lilla Boy, Louisville Lou? Trolley Molly don’t love Harold, Boola boola Pensacoola hullabaloo!” To this day a voice in my head says “Boston Charlie” whenever I hear that tune.
The word you’re looking for is “mondegreen,” and your definition is on the money, especially the fact that the person has to believe that the mangled lyrics are the real ones. Your husband’s creations, while no doubt worthwhile, do not count as “mondegreens.”
I’ve written about “mondegreens” several times over the years, but I can now report that the word has finally made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines the species as “A misunderstood or misinterpreted word or phrase resulting from a mishearing, especially of the lyrics to a song.” The term was invented in 1954 by the writer Sylvia Wright, who as a child had heard her mother recite the Scottish ballad ”The Bonny Earl of Murray.” Wright interpreted one stanza as “Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands, Oh where hae you been?, They hae slay the Earl of Murray, And Lady Mondegreen.” Wright later learned that the line actually was “They hae slay the Earl of Murray and laid him on the green.” Sic transit Lady Mondegreen, but Wright rescued her by memorializing her name as a term for the phenomenon.
Scottish ballads being a bit in eclipse these days, the primary source for modern “mondegreens” has been pop, folk and rock music (“Ducks in the wind, all we are is ducks in the wind…”).