originally published August 16, 2013
“Ye highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray
And Lady Mondegreen.”
According to writer Sylvia Wright in a 1954 Harper’s Magazine essay, this was how she’d heard the first stanza of “The Bonny Earl O’ Moray”, a 17th-centuy ballad. The actual last line of the verse is “And laid him on the green,” but this wonky little misunderstanding led Ms. Wright to coin the term ‘mondegreen’ to refer to any misheard lyric, though ideally one which makes the song better. In this case, because it increases the song’s death count, I guess.
I think the term ‘better’ here is too subjective. When I used to sing along to the Beatles’ “Bad Boy”, I never understood what John was singing for the line, “He worries his teacher till at night she’s ready to poop.” I thought he was singing, “…till her night cheese was ready to poop.” Is mine better? The image is certainly a bit more interesting.
But we all do it. Our ears inevitably trip over some muffled lyric and allow our brains to process the wrong data. If we hear a term with which we aren’t familiar – and many lyrics tend to consist of poetic tweaks on the language – our brains will process an interpretation that we can understand. That doesn’t explain the ‘night cheese’ thing though.
Psychologist Steven Pinker, whose life’s work is figuring out why our brains operate in the messed-up way they do, has found that most mondegreens tend to actually be less plausible than the correct lyrics. But once our brains have slapped down an interpretation on a lyric, it’s hard to reprogram it, even if we are told the right words.
This is a symptom of our modernized world. Where once a misheard folk song would once result in the transformation of a lyric as it played the telephone game and travelled across the land, now we’ve got recordings, sheet music and lyrics websites with obnoxiously intrusive advertisements.
It could simply be a question of cognitive dissonance. It’s a bit of a psychological stone beneath the seat cushion when we hear something we know to be English, but we can’t make out what it is. The brain makes assumptions to fill in the blanks, to fill that nagging void from a lack of comprehension. Nowadays one can punch a lyric request into a search engine, but it wasn’t long ago when we all had to stew in our own ignorance, particularly if the song’s album lacked a lyrics sheet.
Come to think of it, my first internet experience way back in 1995 was looking up the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s “Matilda Mother”. I’d wondered why Syd Barrett wrote the line, “Why’d you have to leave me there, hanging in my infant hair.” Turns out he wrote “infant air”, which doesn’t make that much more sense.
The only thing greater than uncovering the truth about your own mondegreen is reading the lyrics that have trapped others. The good people at kissthisguy.com have compiled an extensive volume of mondegreens, many of which come with comical origin stories. I’d like to pick a few out – maybe you have fallen victim to some yourself. Feel free to add your own – I promise a minimal amount of ridicule and derision. After all, I’m the guy who somehow thought ‘night cheese’ was in a Beatles song.
For starters there’s the mondegreen which inspired the site’s name, as well as a Gavin Edwards book which features some of the funniest examples of the phenomenon. “Purple Haze” takes on a whole new meaning when Jimi Hendrix asks you to “’scuse me while I kiss this guy.”
Credence Clearwater Revival has a classic mondegreen as well. Because the song’s name is “Bad Moon Rising”, I never had a problem with the lyrics. “There’s a bad moon on the rise” makes sense as the chorus. But I guess enough people heard “There’s a bathroom on the right” to inspire John Fogerty to actually sing those lyrics in concert for a laugh.
Toto’s “Africa” inspired some confusion. “I bless the rains down in Africa” has been heard as “I miss the rains down in Africa” and also “I left my brains down in Africa.” I always thought “I’d best Lorraine down in Africa” would have made for a much more compelling narrative.
I’ll admit, I haven’t surveyed everyone on this, but I don’t think I’ve met a soul who understood the lyric “Revved up like a deuce” in Manfred Mann’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded By The Light.” Even in the Boss’s original version, the line is “Cut loose like a deuce” – how is anyone to know what Mr. Mann and his Earth Band are saying? Even Springsteen himself has laughed about how the line seems to be “Wrapped up like a douche” in the remake.
Now that I think about it, I had another issue with this song. “And little Early-Pearly came by in his curly-wurly” is the correct lyric; I’d always heard “gave my anus curly-wurly” which sounded like some dysentery-related disease.
The Spin Doctors’ insipidly catchy song “Two Princes” features the line “I ain’t got no future or family tree, but I know what a prince and lover ought to be” right before the chorus. It’s no surprise someone heard “…but I know what a prison lover ought to be.”
There’s a brilliant Volkswagen commercial in which people sing their own mondegreened version of that lyric in Elton John’s “Rocket Man” chorus that everyone seems to flub: “Burnin’ out his fuse up here alone.”
It changes the context of the song if you hear the opening lyrics of Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ‘69” as, “I got my first real sex dream / Got it at the 5 and dime.” Just saying, a horny guy ought to stay awake when he’s out shopping.
For those who may be unfamiliar with Guglielmo Marconi’s contribution to the invention of top-40 radio might easily misinterpret the line “Marconi plays the mamba” in Starship’s hideous “We Built This City”. “My pony plays the mamba” is one possible variant. Really, I still don’t understand why he’d play the mamba anyway. A mamba is a venomous African snake and has nothing to do with music or radio or building a goddamn city. But I’m getting off topic.
One poor schmuck admits to mis-hearing Elvis Presley sing of his beloved Hound Dog, “You ain’t never pornographic and you ain’t no friend of mine.”
Is Robert Palmer’s “Addicted To Love” a better song if you hear it as a criticism of Michael Jackson? Maybe not better, but it’s funnier if you hear the line, “Might as well face it, you’re a dick with a glove.”
Again, I’m not judging – I’m as much a victim of mondegreen brain-slips as anyone. I think coming across a trove of these like the one at kissthisguy.com is somewhat akin to finding an online support group for an affliction you’ve been secretly living with for years. It’s calming. Relieving.
Now if you’ll excuse me, as Eddie Money famously said, “I’ve got two chickens to paralyze.”