Young Sylvia Wright
couldn’t bear the thought of the Earl o’ Moray dying alone.

The grown-up writer would later recall in Harper’s that, as a child, she often heard her mother sing the 17th-century ballad “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray

The actual lyrics are:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
And laid him on the green. 

But Wright heard, tellingly:

They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
And Lady Mondegreen.

Wright’s young imagination, and perhaps her empathy, resisted the idea of the Earl being left to perish in solitude, so instead, she made up a word to keep him company.

She wrote,

“Leaving him to die all alone without even anyone to hold his hand—I WON'T HAVE IT!!!”

So it was Wright’s stubbornness to accept the Earl’s lonely fate which thrust the term mondegreen into being, making the word mondegreen itself a mondegreen.

Wright continued, notably,
“The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.”

Apropos of Wright’s linguistic value judgment, there is a small discrepancy between the Wikipedia definition of mondegreen and the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition.

The OED defines a mondegreen as simply “a misunderstood or misinterpreted word or phrase resulting from a mishearing of the lyrics of a song.”

But Wikipedia goes a step farther to define mondegreen as “a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase as a result of near-homophony, in a way that gives it a new meaning.”

In other words, Wright was right: the point of mondegreens is that they are better words than what they were intended to be.
Maria Konnikova notes of the lyrical mondegreen in The New Yorker, “Songs and poems, in some sense, lie between conversational speech and a foreign language: we hear the sounds but don’t have the normal contextual cues. It’s not as if we were mid-conversation, where the parameters have already been set.”

Mondegreens are the result of misheard lyrics, yes, but they also produce new lyrics. In this way, mondegreens—by definition, better than the original—are of rich use to lyric.

(So you will not be surprised to hear that I once used “My opium makes all light more radiant” in a poem.)
Jon Carroll, longtime columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle who became, over the course of that tenure, an acknowledged mondegreen expert and archivist, once observed, “yes, mondegreens do reveal much about inner turmoil and psychological predisposition; indeed, a branch of divination called mondegreenomancy has yielded impressive results in early studies.” Scholar Steven Connor called mondegreens “the wrenchings of nonsense into sense.”
Laura Goode is a novelist, essayist, poet, producer, and screenwriter living in San Francisco.

She executive-produced the feature film FARAH GOES BANG.Her first novel for young adults, SISTER MISCHIEF, was released by Candlewick Press in 2011.

See more at www.lauragoode.com