Words & Stuff

MM: The Ants Are My Friends

(27 September 1998)

Most of the time when I mishear a song lyric, I don't hear anything intelligible, just nonsense syllables. Even when I do hear a real but incorrect word, it's often a minor, uninteresting change. Fortunately, other people are better than I at mishearing entertainingly, which has spawned a small industry of lists of misheard lyrics.

People have probably been mishearing lyrics as long as there have been lyrics to mishear, but it wasn't until 1954 that Sylvia Wright, writing for Atlantic, gave a name to comic mishearings. She explained that she'd heard an old folksong:

Ye highlands, and ye lawlands,
Oh! whair hae ye been?
They hae slaine the Earl of Murray,
And layd him on the green.

Wright misheard the last line as "And Lady Mondegreen," and thought it was very sad that they'd killed not only the Earl but his lady. And thus the term "Mondegreen" was born -- though Elliott points out that mishearing this particular lyric in this particular way almost requires the song to be sung in a Brooklyn accent. Jon Carroll, my favorite columnist in the world, has been printing Mondegreens in his column for over ten years, and is widely considered (by me) to be the foremost authority on the subject and popularizer of the term.

A series of Mondegreen collections by Gavin Edwards have recently brought misheard lyrics further into the public eye. In an NPR interview, Edwards claimed that we aren't surprised at the rock lyrics we mishear because we're used to rock lyrics not making any sense. That idea doesn't hold water, given that plenty of Mondegreens come from outside the realm of rock. However, I suppose there might be something to the general idea that people don't expect lyrics to make sense. For instance, someone named Louis Milic once showed people some computer-generated sentences; the random sentences reminded the readers of poetry. Milic concluded that this was because people expect poetry not to make any sense.

I have had a few Mondegreens of my own. For instance, the Jazz Butcher song called "Caroline Wheeler's Birthday Present" includes this line:

"Well, here's a clue: fish is biodegradable. (That means it rots.)"

Every time I hear the song, I think they're saying "That means it rusts." On a similar note, I was sure the Indigo Girls song "Galileo" contained a line about "the rusting soul of Galileo," but of course it was only resting.

When I first encountered Peter Gabriel's "Games Without Frontiers," I didn't know that parts of it were in French. In particular, I always heard one line as "she's, so close to me"; it wasn't 'til years later that I understood the line was really "jeux, sans frontières" (the title of the song, in French). These days I usually hear that line as "she's, so frumpy-haired." I don't know what the line is in the French translation of the song; I assume the same difficulty would apply to the Beatles' "Michelle," and the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer." (I suppose this is just a variant of the old question of how Los Angeles is labeled on a Spanish-language map...)

Peter Gabriel's "Family Snapshot" was once one of my favorite songs, partly because I thought the final lines were "I need some tension; I shoot into the light." I had no idea what "I need some tension" meant, but I thought it was a great image -- and then one day I heard the song on a higher-quality stereo and realized that the character really only needed "some attention." How trite.

Simon & Garfunkel provide a rich vein of Mondegreens:

Evita is another good place to find Mondegreens. For instance, the aristocrats wouldn't mind seeing Eva in Harrod's, but "behind the jewelry curtain, not in front." I wondered what exotic British item a jewelry curtain might be, until I found out it was really a "jewelry counter"... But my favorite Mondegreen from Evita comes when Che introduces Magaldi to the audience: "That was thin Magaldi," I thought he said. What an interesting way of describing a character! Actual line: "Agustin Magaldi."

Ideally, a Mondegreen is an unintentional mishearing rather than an intentional parody, but it can be fun to intentionally Mondegreen a line. I'll leave you with an item I'd like to think someone might mishear in Evita: Che asking Eva if she'd ever believed that "all this would be yours; that you'd become the lady of the mall?" (She's really the lady of them all.)


Bibliographic references:

Gavin Edwards books:

The AREVO Mind Candy page lists several Mondegreen links, most notably to this list.

William Safire's book On Language (1980) apparently contains some Mondegreens.

My rendition of the lyrics to "The Bonny Earl of Murray" is lightly modified from a 1765 Thomas Percy version. The Earl of Murray (or Moray) was killed in 1592 by a man named Huntly. If you want further information, see a book called The Bonny Earl of Murray by Edward D. Ives, which details the feud between Huntly and Moray and examines the evolution of the ballad over four centuries.


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Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>