Don’t forget the mondegreens

The Word Nerd explains Little Women, Tony Danza and other mistaken lyrical identities

No longer just a casualty of the karaoke bar, the Word Nerd explains mondegreens.
No longer just a casualty of the karaoke bar, the Word Nerd explains mondegreens.
Credit: 
Illustration by Emily Sicilia
Meaghan Trewin
Meaghan Trewin

Have you ever heard that Celine Dion song that goes “the hot dogs go on?” Or perhaps that classic Christmas carol about Rudolph and “Olive, the other reindeer?”

Many of us have experienced the humiliating moment of discovering the lyrics to one of your favourite songs, sometimes one you have sung loudly and passionately many times in public, may not go exactly the way you thought they might.

There are seemingly endless terms to describe the phenomenon of mishearing lyrics, including such gems as disclexia, Music Ear Disturbance and chronic lyricosis. The technical term is mondegreen—originating in 1954 when American writer Sylvia Wright published an essay in Harper’s Magazine on her own lyrical disillusionment. As a child she had believed her favourite Scottish ballad began with the verse:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,

Oh, where hae ye been?

They hae slain the Earl Amurray, and Lady Mondegreen.

Much to Wright’s disappointment the romantic death she imagined Earl Amurray and Lady Mondegreen suffered together never actually happened, as the line actually ran “and laid him on the green.” Deciding that she still preferred her version to the original, she immortalized Lady Mondegreen by naming all cases of mistaken lyrics after the imaginary Lady. Since the 1950s the term has been picked up and popularized by newspaper columnists and writers such as Jon Carroll from the San Francisco Chronicle and Gavin Edwards, author of ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy and Other Misheard Lyrics.

In 2008 the word was officially added to the Miriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and can now be found everywhere from the Oxford English Dictionary to dictionary.com.

The mondegreen experience is apparently a common one. When I chose this as my next Word Nerd topic, no sooner did I tell my friends then I was bombarded with a deluge of stories detailing awkward and embarrassing moments of realization. The ironic thing about mondegreens is that, more often than not, the substituted lyrics are much less plausible than the originals. Much to my surprise, for example, the line “‘Cause living with me must have damn near killed you” in Nickleback’s “How You Remind Me,” was commonly heard as “‘Cause Little Women must have damn near killed you.” Another popular misinterpreted song I came across was the chorus of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” as “slow talking Walter, the fire engine guy.” Mondegreens, widespread as they are, also have a tendency to show up in popular culture, for example Phoebe from Friends mistakenly referred to ‘that song Elton John wrote for the guy from ‘Who’s the Boss.’’ Facing the subsequent blank stares, she elaborated, singing “Hold me closer, Tony Danza.”

For some songs, misinterpretation is so widely committed it becomes part of the very mythology surrounding the song and its artist.

The lyrics to Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” were so commonly misinterpreted as “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy,” that he would often sing the distorted phrase in live performances. Indeed, many fans believe that he intentionally slurred his words while performing in the studio in order to tease his audience.

Another artist who seems to invite fans to misinterpretation is Eiffel 65, whose hit single “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” leaves listeners to fill in their own words to the ambiguous chorus “I’m blue da ba dee da ba daa da ba dee da ba da.” The classic misinterpretation is of course “I’m blue, if I were green I would die, if I were green I would die.” But other versions abound, including, “I’m blue and I believe I will die if I eat apple pie,” and “I’m blue I’m in need of a guy, I’m in need of a guy.” My personal favourite is particularly relevant to life at Queen’s, going “I’m blue, Aberdeen, I will die in Aberdeen I will die…”—perhaps an option for a new Homecoming anthem?

Despite the large number of misheard pop songs, mondegreens are by no means limited to popular music, as evidenced by the longstanding childhood tradition of mis-sung Christmas carols featuring a smelly Batman and chipmunks roasting on an open fire. Even national anthems are subject to the phenomenon, there being a well known joke-tradition of a visiting Mexican spectator mistaking “Oh say can you see” for an inquiry as to whether he, José, was able to see. The Canadian anthem isn’t safe either, with the online Archive of Misheard Lyrics citing a four-year-old boy who fervently believed the opening lines to be “O Canada, we stand on cars and freeze.” Although technically incorrect, perhaps slightly more accurate.

According to writer and mondegreen expert Gavin Edwards, pop songs, or even national anthems, are not always meant to be fully understood, saying we’re meant to let them wash over us and pick out individual choruses we enjoy. If some of these choruses are heard slightly differently than intended, that only further proves how complicated and varied an individual’s experience of language is.

For Edwards, this variation is a good thing, because, pop songs are not meant to be instruction manuals: they’re supposed to be heard a million different ways, in a million different contexts. Customization, he has said, is the only rational response to omnipresence.

My advice? Embrace the mondegreen. Not only is it an oft-committed and completely natural mistake, it’s your own way of making the song your own, of taking your vast individual experience and subconsciously applying it to the world around you.

Name that tune

Can you identify the source of these popularly misinterpreted lyrics?

A. Got my first real sex dream…
B. Got my head checked, by a trombone chain.
C. It’s not fair, to deny me of the cross-eyed bear that you gave to me.
D. Can’t stop the ferrets when they need food.
E. Might as well face it, you a dick with a glove.
F. Shake it like a polar bear ninja.
G. It doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not.

Answers

A. Bryan Adams, “Summer of ‘69”
B. Blur, “Song 2”
C. Alanis Morisette, “You Oughta Know”
D. Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Can’t Stop”
E. Robert Palmer, “Addicted to Love”
F. Outkast, “Hey ya”
G. Bon Jovi, “Livin’ on a Prayer”

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