Tag Archives: mondegreen

With a Song in My Heart: M is for…

“Maneater” – Hall & Oates, 1982.

Mondegreen is the word for the phenomenon that has plagued music since the dawn of recorded sound:   the misinterpretation of mumbled lyrics to mean something other than what was intended.  If you’ve ever sung “scuse me while I kiss this guy” to “Purple Haze,” “there’s a bathroom on the right” to “Bad Moon Rising” or pretty much anything to “Louie Louie,” congratulations, you’re a mondegreener.  The term was coined by American writer Sylvia Wright in a 1954 essay after her mishearing of the line “and laid him on the green” as “and Lady Mondegreen,” in the 17th Century Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray,” and it seems that so long as vocalists continue to sing with marbles their mouths, mondegreens are ensured a healthy reign.  Bob Dylan’s output alone contains enough potential mondegreens to leave several small countries scratching their heads and rewinding to give it another listen.  More on this in a minute.

My father’s enormous vinyl record collection was a sampler of some of the greatest rock & roll ever written and performed.  His expertise in the two decades of music spanning the Eisenhower to Nixon years was unsurpassed.  I remember once playing the “RPM” version of Trivial Pursuit with him, which had a category called “After the Beatles,” spanning the era following their breakup.  He’d always struggle to get those ones correct, and he once commented that it was because it was such a terrible time for music.  Anything from the 50’s or 60’s, however, he knew cold.  The “Lookin’ Back” dance parties held by local radio station CKFM were annual appointments for him and my mother, with my sister and I left with a babysitter (one of whom made me watch Tommy, traumatizing me for life with the baked beans exploding over Ann-Margret) while they tore up the floor to the jukebox standards that continued to fire the souls of the baby boomers with nostalgia for proms and sock hops.  For my cousin’s sixteenth birthday, Dad drew on his archive to create his gift of a themed playlist:  Neil Sedaka’s “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen,” Johnny Burnette’s “You’re Sixteen, You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine” and the Crests’ “Sixteen Candles,” among others, and again this was back when that meant carting records and reel-to-reels from house to house in a couple of banker’s boxes.  He was an attorney by trade, but a DJ at heart.

Being his son meant absorbing that passion as well, learning the legendary songs of his past and discovering the new music of our present together in the form of cassettes loaded into the car stereo on long drives to Blue Jays games, with gems as varied as Paul Simon’s Graceland album, the Footloose soundtrack, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Michael Jackson’s Thriller or the collected works of Hall & Oates, specifically their album Rock & Soul, Part 1 (there never was a part 2.)  This is where we return to the subject of mondegreens.  Back in those days, of course (to channel Grampa Simpson a little) there was no Lyrics.com to visit if you didn’t catch the middle eight in “I Want a New Drug,” you just had to listen over and over again and try to discern the meaning.  That is, if you cared.  Dad didn’t.  His love of singing was about the feel of the music and not the substance of the words, so, half-heard verses were substituted with fantastic inventions coming not within a light-year of their actual meaning, or general sense for that matter.  “Trouble wander cheek new see behind me” was the placeholder for “Devil and the deep blue sea behind me” in the Police’s “Wrapped Around Your Finger.”  And Daryl Hall’s perfectly logical “The woman is wild, ooh” from the song that lends itself to the title of this post transmogrified between my father’s ears into “poobulasquaw, ooooh.”  (A million quatloos to anyone who can divine a reasonable-sounding explanation of what that means.)

I’d roll my eyes and sigh, “Daaaaaaad,” but the truth is that his fanciful interpretations were far more memorable than whatever the artist had recorded in the first place.  I recall looking at the liner notes of a Seal album once where he was asked why he didn’t publish his lyrics, and his rationale was that music was supposed to be more about how it was received rather than how it was meant, and that he had no business stepping on what people felt he was singing by providing a definitive answer.  In retrospect I think my father always knew the lyrics, and for him, getting them wrong was mere spirited improvisation; having fun and seeing if his often literal-minded boy would notice.  Today, “Maneater” is the song that reminds me it’s okay to color outside the lines, that imaginative speculation can sometimes outdo whatever The Man has decided the correct answer is.  And Seal was right – Daryl Hall and John Oates by no means intended “Maneater” to be a song that could help recall a bond between a father and his son.  We added that ourselves and made the result something greater than the sum of its parts.  Let us then continue to celebrate the mondegreen as the spirit of human invention, where even our mistakes can bring forth genius, or at the very least, a good laugh and a treasured memory.

Fun with words: Update your dictionary

Photograph by Henry Lim.

There are too many fascinating words in English that don’t get used very often.  Our vocabulary tends to be limited to the scope of our daily lives, and the mundane exchanges of forgettable pleasantry that pass for typical conversation.  If the Inuit have a hundred different words for snow, English has a billion permutations of how to talk about snow in a workplace elevator.  Still, our language is full of tricks and tropes that allow us to use these same old words in exciting new ways.  You’ve probably used many of these without realizing what you were doing (or writing) at the time.  But much as a famous technology company would assure you that “there’s an app for that,” in English, there’s a word for that as well.  These are some of my favourites, and I hope they shall find greater use in the future:

  • Portmanteau – From French for “carry your coat,” this is a word that originates as the combination of two separate words in order to describe something new, like how combining smoke and fog gives you smog.  Some popular examples include breathalyzer, jazzercise, soundscape, televangelist, bromance, and, regrettably, bootylicious.
  • Mondegreen – Refer to my previous post on misheard lyrics – this is the term for those.  It was coined by writer Sylvia Wright in an essay in Harper’s Magazine in 1954, referring to a 17th Century poem called “The Bonny Earl O’Moray,” in which a stanza reads:  “They hae slain the Earl O’Moray, and laid him on the green.”  Wright heard the latter phrase as “And Lady Mondegreen.”  The key to a true mondegreen, according to Wright, is that the misinterpretation must improve upon the original; hence, my father’s (in)famous misreading of Hall & Oates’ “The woman is wild, ooh” as “Poobulasquaooh” probably doesn’t count.  (See also:  “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy” from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”)
  • Anacoluthon – Familiar, if not immediately, to any man in trouble with his wife, this is the term for a phrase where the grammar is broken.  “It was just a – I didn’t mean to – I’m so sorry.”
  • Apophasia – Politicians love this one, for it lets them slag their opponents without seeming like they’re doing so on purpose.  This is when you say you’re not going to mention something but end up insinuating it anyway.  Ronald Reagan used it to great effect in his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale when he said after being challenged that he was too old to be President, “I am not going to make age an issue of this campaign.  I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”  Or “You know, it’s not true, all that stuff they say about Phil being a lying, sleazy, unprincipled, back-stabbing, philanderous, greedy old opportunistic horse thief.”
  • Mumpsimus – Anyone who insists on saying “nucular” is guilty of this grammatical offense – the term for a habit adhered to obstinately, no matter how many times evidence shows it to be in error.  It comes from a story about a monk who mispronounced part of the Latin Eucharist and refused to change it to the correct version because he’d been doing it his own way for forty years.
  • Paraprosdokian – I just learned this one yesterday and I’ve saved the best for last.  This is where the second part of a sentence unexpectedly causes you to reinterpret the first part.  You could almost call it the Groucho Marx, as he was a master of it:  “I’ve had a perfectly lovely evening – unfortunately, this wasn’t it.”  Or the other famous quote, usually interpreted to be said by or about Winston Churchill depending on where you read it:  “There, but for the grace of God, goes God.”

There you have it – six fun terms to expand your vocabulary – not that they’re likely to help when you’re stuck in that elevator on a snowy day.  Perhaps “anacoluthon” might spring to mind the next time you find yourself struggling for words in a difficult situation.  You could even try to relax the tension of the moment by pointing it out to your sparring partner.  I disavow myself of all legal responsibility therefor should you then get summarily punched in the face.

P.S. Thanks to the Great Encyclopedia of Earthly Knowledge for its customary assistance.