Once upon a time (1954) an American writer named Sylvia Wright wrote an essay for Harper's Magazine called The Death of Lady Mondegreen. In it, she described how she misheard the last line of the first stanza of her favourite poems.* The line read: 'And laid him on the green'. She thought the line was 'And Lady Mondegreen'.
In the essay, she wrote: "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".
Thus, the term was born. In 2000, it made its way into the Random House Webster's College Dictionary. Of course, since then, like most of pop culture, it has slid to the gutter, and now we're busy mishearing lyrics of pop music. And it's been going on a long time.
In 1967, Jimi Hendrix released Purple Haze, with the lyric, "Excuse me while I kiss the sky". That went on to be the name sake for a website where listeners can upload their own mondegreens, KissThisGuy.com. (Further complicating matters, Jimi Hendrix actually sang that line for fun at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.)
In 1972, Elton John released Rocket Man (I Think it's Going to be a Long Long Time), which includes several dozen mondegreens, like "Rocket man, burning up the trees on every lawn" instead of "Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone". We especially like that KissThisGuy.com pays homage to the intended meaning of the word by asking if the misheard lyric is better than the original, and also, if partying was involved.
Recognising the cultural prevalence of this mondegreens, a Volkswagen commercial from this year even delivers the true lyric to Rocket Man after featuring several comical versions:
If you're a rap fan, you'll want to read this New York Times magazine article on the term 'fanute', which talks about the site RapGenius, a site dedicated to decoding rap lyrics.
* The poem the young Sylvia Wright misheard was the Scottish ballad, The Bonny Earl O'Moray, and went like this: Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands, Oh, where hae ye been? They hae slain the Earl O' Moray, and laid him on the green.