If you’ve confused “Takin’ Care of Business” with “Makin’ Carrot Biscuits” or “Bennie and the Jets” with “Betty in a Dress,” you’ve been tricked by a mondegreen. As Merriam-Webster explains, this phenomenon occurs when a word or phrase “results from a mishearing of something said or sung.” You can thank American writer Sylvia Wright for the term, which she coined in a 1954 Harper’s essay. When Wright was a child, her mother read to her from the book Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. A favorite entry featured the line, “And laid him on the green,” which Wright misheard as “And Lady Mondegreen.”
A mondegreen occurs when there’s a communication hiccup between the syllables you hear and the meaning your brain assigns to them. Mondegreens are especially common when you hear music but cannot see the singer’s face, like when listening to the radio. (For example, when you interpret “Our Lips Are Sealed” as “Alex the Seal.”) They’re also more likely to happen when the singer has an accent. But although mondegreens are perhaps most famously associated with song lyrics, they can also happen when everyday words and phrases are misheard. Occasionally, a misconstrued phrase is so common that it enters our lexicon. Such was the case with “spitting image,” which originated as “spit and image” (“spit” once meant “a perfect likeness”), and “nickname,” which began life as “an ekename” (“also-name”).
The lyrics of one of the most famous songs of the civil rights era allegedly came to Bob Dylan very quickly, while he was sitting at a cafe in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Dylan was partly inspired by Delores Dixon’s rendition of the enslavement-era protest song “No More Auction Block for Me.” Fittingly, Dixon was the lead vocalist of the New World Singers, the first band to record “Blowin’ in the Wind,” in 1962. The following year, Dylan performed the song himself on his sophomore album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul and Mary then covered the track in front of 250,000 people at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963. Both Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary’s versions of “Blowin’ in the Wind” are now part of the Grammy Hall of Fame. When some people listen to the song’s opening line — “The answer, my friend” — they hear “The ants are my friends,” a mondegreen that inspired its own book title.