Misheard song lyrics have been in my head again. Kerry Maxwell’s BuzzWord article on creep as a combining form reminded me of the memorably rude example ‘I drove all night, crapped in your room’ – instead of crept. Then a Twitter friend mentioned ‘Poppadum Creek’, a surreal misanalysis of Madonna’s lyric ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, and it got the ball rolling.
The word for this is mondegreen. As Stephen Bullon notes, it was coined in 1954 by Sylvia Wright, who heard an old ballad that went ‘They have slain the Earl o’ Moray / And laid him on the green’ and thought the second line was ‘And Lady Mondegreen’. She used mondegreen in an essay for Harper’s, from where it was widely adopted as a term for misheard lyrics and other phrases.
Songs have a way of getting stuck in our heads – the German loanword earworm evokes this phenomenon nicely – and it can happen easily even when the lyrics aren’t distinct. Since our minds tend to generate familiar patterns out of perceived noise or random data, we turn unintelligible lyrics into words we recognise, even if they make little or no sense. Song lyrics aren’t renowned for their coherency anyway.
Mondegreens can be subjective or collective. Everyone’s experience of a song is unique, so new and idiosyncratic mondegreens keep appearing. Others are common enough to be famous in the field, like Jimi Hendrix’s ‘kiss this guy’, instead of kiss the sky. Some mondegreens might begin as accidents of perception but be amusing enough to then be deliberately adopted, replacing the original words. Wright herself wrote that they were ‘better than the original’, and some singers even embrace the mondegreens.
Back when Ireland couldn’t stop winning the Eurovision Song Contest, Niamh Kavanagh’s 1993 winner ‘In Your Eyes’ contained the lyric: ‘I built a wall around me’ (a metaphorical wall of emotion, not a reference to Ireland’s construction boom, which hadn’t happened yet). Someone in my family decided it was ‘Mildew all around me’, and this became our preferred version.
The potential for comedy is obvious, as in the tirelessly silly reinterpretation of Joe Cocker singing ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ at Woodstock (‘Oh, I’ll take this almond love’). There are more laughs to be found in the examples at the Guardian music blog, for example ‘Shamu the mysterious whale’ (She moves in mysterious ways), ‘I wanna be a door/dog’ (I wanna be adored), ‘Sue Lawley’ (So lonely), ‘R-G-S-P-E-P-P’ (R-E-S-P-E-C-T), ‘Let’s pee in the corner’ (That’s me in the corner), and ‘Grim poodle-basher on the 45’ (Brimful of Asha…). What are your mondegreens?Email this Post