Misheard Hymns: A Seriously Silly Catalog
A bit of musical levity for a Sunday morning.
When you were a kid in church, did you ever mishear the words to a hymn? And did you then carry the mistaken version around in your head for months or even years, never mind how silly the mistaken version was? Take heart — you’re not alone. In fact, there is even a name for this: mondegreen, the misheard version of a song lyric.
I have a mondegreen in my own history (more on that in a bit), and in the spirit of scientific investigation I asked the members of an online forum if they had any from their own childhoods. I received more than a hundred replies.
Most of them can be grouped into three broad categories:
When Church Service Runs Through Lunchtime
When it’s all you can do to keep your mind on the hymn you’re singing and not on your rumbling stomach, sometimes the hymn lyrics start to get a bit, well, culinary. Children have been known to hear:
- “Bringing in the cheese” instead of “Bringing in the sheaves.”
- “Up from the gravy arose” … leaving multiple children expecting a creature from the gravy lagoon. (The original is, of course, “Up from the grave he arose.”)
- “Jesus gives me sweet peas” for “Jesus gives me sweet peace.” Wouldn’t Jesus be more appealing if he brought chocolate cake?
- “Rhubarb from rhubarb” for “True God from True God.” (This child at least liked rhubarb)
- “I am a turnip. I will follow Jesus” for “I am determined, I will follow Jesus.” In a demographic tutored by Veggie Tales, this is not entirely unexpected.
- “Trampling out the vintage where the grapes are rather stored” in the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Less scary than “grapes of wrath” but also rather less dramatic.
- “He leadeth me beside distilled waters” for “He leadeth me beside the still waters.” From a child with a surprising grasp of filtration systems.
- “How lovely are the messengers who bring us a mess of new peas” turned out to be … yes … “who bring us a message of peace.”
- And this may be the trippiest of them all: “Those egg shells are a day old” for “In excelsis Deo.”
The Angel Said What to Mary?
Maybe nothing could be stranger than a virgin being told that her Creator, God the Son, would be conceived in her womb. So maybe when we sing about Mary and her baby, and sing words the Archangel Gabriel or Mary’s cousin Elizabeth said to her, some kids just can’t wrap their minds around what is going on.
Or maybe they just don’t know what “yon” means.
- “Round John Virgin” for “Round yon virgin.”
- “Most highly flavored lady, Gloria!” was really “Most highly favored lady, gloria!” So was “Most highly flavored gravy.” More food, see?
- “Hail Mary, full of grace. Dolores Whitney” turned out — rather unexpectedly — to be “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.” The Dolores Whitney business is reminiscent of two other mysterious females: “Shirley Goodness and Mercy,” who apparently stalked David all the days of his life (Psalm 23:6).
- “Blessed art thou, a monk swimmin’” turned out to be “Blessed art thou among women.” Glad no one built a theology around that mondegreen.
- “Blessed is the fruit of thy wound” for “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” Ouch.
- “Round yon virgin mother and child.” So are the mother and child supposed to look at the virgin? What is a virgin, anyway?
Who? What? Where?
Maybe little Johnny doesn’t know what a virgin is, but he knows his local train station, and he knows his wild animals. Making sense of hymns by straddling the border between familiar and surreal, kids sang:
- “Lead us not into Penn Station” or, variably, “lead a snot into temptation.” (“lead us not into temptation”).
- “Just as I am without one flea” (Just as I am without one plea). Also, “Nero, my dog has fleas” (“Nearer my God to Thee,” I assume, but the person didn’t specify.)
- “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear” or “Bradley, the cross-eyed bear” instead of “Gladly the cross I’d bear.” Also “The consecrated cross-eyed bear” for “The consecrated cross I’d bear.” Clearly there is an untapped market for children’s books about vision-impaired bears.
- “Conscious Pilate” and “Pancho’s Pilate,” both of whom turned out to be Pontius Pilate.
- “Bringing in the sheets,” which should have been, “Bringing in the Sheaves.” This misconception was frequent enough to count as a mass hallucination.
- “He makes the woeful heart to sing” became “He makes the wolf-ful heart to sing. (Makes you want to howl, doesn’t it?)
- “In Aunt Chelsea’s stable,” because Aunt Chelsea I know and stables I know, but what is “In excelsis Deo”?
- “There is a bomb in Gilead,” for “There is a balm in Gilead.” Actually, this misconception plagues adults as well. (And, sadly, might be true today.)
- “And dust surround thy throne” by a child with a possible housecleaning obsession (if such a creature even exists). The original is “and thus surround the throne.”
- “Here I raise my heavy knees, Sir” very politely replaced “Here I raise my Ebenezer.”
- “Ole, Ole, Ole,” when the adults sang “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Soccer fans? Fiesta time?
- “Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me.” (“and He walks with me, and He talks with me”).
- “The first snow elf” (The first Noel).
- “While shepherds washed their socks by night” — and hopefully also washed behind their ears. The original: “While shepherds watched their flocks by night.”
- “Oh when the sinks go marching in!” I don’t even know what to say about this one. I just know we really need to get the saints back in this thing.
My contribution to that great and ever-expanding catalog of mondegreens? I couldn’t decide if we were singing “I stand in olive view” or “I stand in all of you.” Turns out it was Door #3: “I stand in awe of you.”
Do you have your own mondegreen to confess? Please leave them in the comments section.
Esteemed Christian author, professor and translator Anthony Esolen, who has been published at The Stream and in many other venues, confessed to his own mondegreen. His wasn’t a hymn, but “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” As a boy he heard it as:
My body lies over the ocean.
My body lies over the sea.
My body lies over the ocean.
O bring back my body to me!
I could try to make some clever point from that about the theology of the Body, but I’d better leave that to Dr. Esolen.