Walk like a Mondegreen

Sometime around my sophomore year at Swarthmore, a guest speaker came to give a linguistics talk. This guy had done a study of Mexican songs, and had discovered that they often mis-stress words—they take a word that normally has stress on the first syllable, for example, and put the stress on the second syllable instead.

I thought that was interesting, and afterward I went up to him and commented that I'd noticed the same thing in popular music in English. He said, "No, this doesn't happen in songs in English." I was flabbergasted—I said, "Sure it does, it happens all the time." He said, "Name one example." I got flustered, as I always do in such situations, and grabbed the first example of a weird rhythm that came to mind, even though I had a nagging feeling it wasn't quite right: "In Simon & Garfunkel's song 'A Poem on the Underground Wall,' there's the phrase 'A single word, only comprising four letters,' emphasized like 'ONlycom PRISing.'" He gave me a half-pitying look (poor dumb undergrad) and said, "That's the correct stress. 'comPRISing,' that's the way the word is stressed." He was right, of course, which flustered me more, and I muttered, "Well, there are lots of others" and escaped.

(That story is made even more embarrassing by the fact that I had misheard the S&G lyrics. The actual line is "A single-worded poem comprised of four letters," which makes the rhythm in the song much more natural.)

However! I was definitely right that a lot of popular songs do contain mis-stressed words. I come across them every so often and think smugly to myself that I was right. (In case you're wondering, no, I don't normally hold grudges for this long over something so tiny.)

I was reminded of this a couple days ago when "Walk Like an Egyptian" started running through my head and I realized that I still don't understand what half the words are. So I went and looked up the lyrics and found the following mis-stressed words:

  • paintings: paintINGS
  • bazaar: BAH-ZAHR
  • money: moNEY
  • waitresses: wait-ress-IS

Vindication! Now if only I knew who that linguist was.

Anyway, looking up the lyrics resulted in my uncovering a couple of Mondegreens. I always thought the schoolkids in that song "like to plunk in the middle bed." Kinda racy, no? Actually, they "like the punk and the metal band." And "the bud which resists" turns out to be "the blonde waitresses."

There are a couple of lines that are still very unclear to me, though. Different sets of online lyrics provide different answers. The line I'd heard as "slight faded street," for example: which of the following is it really?

  • Line your feet astreet
  • Hide your feet up the street
  • Slide your feet upstreet

And finally, I'm particularly intrigued by the line before "So [or Go] strike a pose on a Cadillac." Which of the following is right?

  • Life is hard you know
  • Like Sergeant O

I'm guessing it's the former. But if it's the latter, who's Sergeant O? And why does he or she strike poses on Cadillacs?

6 Responses to “Walk like a Mondegreen”

  1. Jon A

    According to the Bangles web site, it’s “Life is hard, you know”, which surprised me – I always wondered who “Sergeant No” was.

  2. Jed

    Aha! Thank you—somehow it just didn’t occur to me to look for an official Bangles website. (I think I assumed it would’ve turned up in the lyrics search if it existed; turns out they use Flash to display their lyrics. Sigh.)

    And the other line I was confused about turns out to be “Slide your feet up the street,” which is pretty close to what I guessed, though the “your” and the “the” are both pretty much inaudible.

  3. Tempest

    Diction! We needs more diction!

    I have often wondered if singers muddle their lyrics on purpose. Because this has been a problem since before “In the Garden of Eden” and “Louie, Louie” came out and it has not gotten much better. We wouldn’t need lyric sheets if musicians would just EE-nun-C-ate!

    One song I felt poked fun at this kind of thing is on Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Album from South Park. There is a song on the CD called “The Most Offensive Song Ever” sung by Mr. Hankey and Kenny (the kid with the parka over his mouth and you can’t always understand what he’s saying). In the song, likewise, you can’t always understand what he’s saying, but if you’re smart you get the gist. Recently I went and looked up the lyrics.

    The parts in [ ] are Kenny’s.

  4. Aynjel Kaye

    Y’know what’s funny? this site identifies misheard song lyrics and the “correct” lyrics. And with at least one set of lyrics, the “correct” lyrics are different in two places.

    And I, as a youngster, always assumed that the paintings on the tomb do the “slam dance”. Go figure…

  5. Anonymous

    A common old trick is to sing the Star-Spangled Banner starting on the second syllable (i.e. the first note of the song gets the second syllable of the lyric), so it starts like this (capitalization roughly indicates stress/high notes):

    Sa-ay, can you see BY
    THE dawn’s EARly light what
    So proudLY we hailed at
    The twiLIGHT’s last gleaMING whose.

    etc. It’s really rather tricky to do, but the effect is pretty good if you get it right.

  6. Kydja

    Theres always unsertanity. Sometimes i just say “WHAT???” and go to the net to see the truth!
    Just listen to famous Dire Straits song – My parties. It has a line wich goes:

    “ah, here comes the dip – you may kiss the cook
    let me show you honey – it’s easy – look”

    and guess what i heard!

    “ah, here comes the dick – you may kiss it,crook
    let me show you honey – it’s easy – look”

    HAAA!!! You better belive it!


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