Thursday, November 13, 2008

Mondegreens, Mairzydoats and believing in Milko

Mondegreen (noun) - a word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung.

I bet you all know a mondegreen or two even if you had no idea that they were called mondegreens.

A mondegreen is a misheard word or phrase. One of the most famous examples is the line in Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze in which he sings 'Excuse me while I kiss the sky'. Urban legend has it that certain anti-gay protestors (deliberately?) misheard this as 'kiss this guy' and attempted to use this to undermine Hendrix's sexy credibility. Another famous one is the line 'There's a bad moon on the rise' from Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival, which is often misheard as 'bathroom on the right'. For years, Dawn couldn't figure out what Errol Brown of Hot Chocolate was singing in the song You Sexy Thing. It sounded to her like 'I believe in milko'. It turned out to be 'miracles'. It still sounds like 'milko' to me to this day.

The term mondegreen has its origin in an essay titled 'The death of the Lady Mondegreen' by US writer Sylvia Wright and published in Harper's Magazine in 1954. In the essay, Wright described how, for many years, she'd believed that a character called Lady Mondegreen had been killed in a 17th century Scottish ballad that she'd learned as a child. The final two lines of The Bonnie Earl O'Murray should read:

They hae slain the Earl O'Murray,
And laid him on the green.

But Wright had heard the last line as 'and Lady Mondegreen', assuming that there was a second victim. As there was no existing term to describe this phenomenon (as there is for spoonerisms, malapropisms etc.), she proposed that the word 'mondegreen' be adopted. And so it was.

Among my favourites are Dylan's 'The ants are my friends, they're blowing in the wind'; the line from Nirvana's Smells like Teen Spirit that claims 'Here we are now, in containers'; and the line in the Eagles' Hotel California that says, 'Such a nice surprise when your rabbit dies' (actually, 'bring your alibis').

There is a website (there's always a website), excellently named Kiss This Guy, where misheard song lyrics are posted. It's a good laugh to have a mooch around in their archives although some of the examples do seem to be a bit contrived at times.

But if a mondegreen is, by definition, something accidentally misheard, what should we call a word or phrase that is deliberately designed to make you hear something different? Surprisingly, there's a lot of it about.

Brit comedy duo The Two Ronnies' most famous sketch centres on a hardware store where deliberate mondegreens abound. The customer wants 'fork handles' and the vendor supplies 'four candles' and so on. Hilarity ensues. And many songs - mostly comic - have been written that play upon misheard lyrics. The late, great Benny Hill had a song called Rubber Balloons which was supposedly the cry of a balloon seller but when sung at the right moment in the narrative (and in the presence of a well-endowed young lady) became an instruction instead (I did find the first part of it on Youtube - sadly the part where it becomes a sketch with 'Val' singing over the top is unavailable as far as I can see).

And then there's the 1934 novelty song by Milton Drake, Al Hoffman and Jerry Livingston that goes:

'Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you?'

It seems to be compete nonsense until you ... er ... reverse-mondegreen (?) it and hey presto! It suddenly becomes a song about the eating habits of hoofed mammals.

A reverse-mondegreen, eh? Sadly, Neergednom is just too clumsy. I propose that we call it a mairzydoat.

Your thoughts, as always, are hugely welcome.


Persephone said...

My absolute favourite mondegreen remains: Slow talkin' Walter, the fire-engine guy.... ("Smoke on the water/ A fire in the sky" - Deep Purple)

In my hometown of Victoria, BC, we have a rather splendid and eclectic radio station called "The Q" and about 10 years ago, someone connected with them recorded a whole song based on that mondegreen. Alas, Deep Purple's lawyers must have caught wind of it, because I've never heard of it since, despite the fact that the mondegreen lyrics were a huge improvement on the original. I've googled in vain.

My own personal mondegreen comes from 1979 and "The Pina Colada Song". Not being much of a drinker, I'd never heard of pina coladas, so I misheard the lyric as "if you like bean enchiladas..."

doctawho42 said...

I always thought, in Muse's Supermassive Black hHole that it was "Blue shoes melting in the dead of night" when it was "Glaciers melting in the dead of night"
I think blue shoes melting is much more poetic. When I explained this to people, they shunned me for a day.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Persephone and Docta - Excellent examples. It's amazing how common a phenomenon it is. Brit comedian Peter Kay talks about his dad never knowing the proper lyrics to things and coming up with nonsensical alternatives. For example, during ABBA's Dancing Queen he'd sing 'feel the meat on the tangerine'. When challenged he would suddenly realise that what he'd been singing was rubbish and get all embarrassed.

Debby said...

S/he who is driving maintains control of the radio. So one day when Cara was driving, we were listening to Gwen Stefani. I heard her saying 'Ain't no harm in that, girl', and Cara was trying to tell me that it was 'Ain't no holler-back girl', and I was trying to tell her it couldn't be, because it made no sense.

As soon as we got home, she was madly googling lyrics. Sense did not win that day.

Protege said...

Ha, I thought only non-English speaking people, or people who do not have English as their primary language will misunderstands texts this way. I feel much better now, as to me this is happens quiet frequently.:)

chris hale said...

One of my favourite misheard lyrics is the chorus of Billy Ocean's When the going gets tough, which sounds for all the world like 'Go and get stuffed'.

Diane said...

I am the Queen of Mondegreens! I couldn't even begin to list all the times my friends have heard me singing along to the radio, turned it down, and said, "WHAT did you say?!" (I think I might have a slight hearing problem.) My daughter is now Princess of the Mondegreens. It's nice to know I passed on something other than my stubborn nature and my nose.

Janet said...

Stevyn, there's the famous (infamous?) joke in the US about the Mexican immigrant who feels he's being so personally welcomed to America when he hears the beginning of the US national anthem - "Jose, can you see...".

Stevyn Colgan said...

Debby - Kids are a constant source of excellent mondegreenery. My niece Leah, when she was tiny, once sang me a version of 'Jingle Bells' that involved something called 'a one hose locum sleigh'. She also mistook 'Oh what fun' for 'Hoeluck Farm'. Brilliant.

Protege - I was surprised to read that modegreens are just as common in other languages. But, yes, mistranslating must be a constant source of amusement!

Chris - Best I've heard so far!

Diane - At last the true identity of Lady Mondegreen is revealed!

Janet - Great story! I've not heard that one before. I seem to recall a fashion in the late 70s for shaggy dog stories that ended with a mondegreenish punchline; things like 'I left my heart in Sam Frank's Disco', or 'Sliding a log on the chest of a whale'. That sort of thing.

Diane said...

I just remembered that I did a post about this a while ago... it'll give you a chuckle...

Debby said...

Cara reminded me of her favorite mom-degreen...I was driving and singing 'Even when your hope is gone, mow the lawn, mow the lawn...' Now the thing is, this made sense to me, since I consider lawn mowing to be very relaxing and meditative. Cara howled. It was, of course, 'even when your hope is gone, move along, move along'

Persephone said...

I forgot one of the favourite deliberate mondegreens around our house (don't think it originates with us though): You're so vague, you probably think this song is a movie... ("You're So Vain" by Carly Simon)

Stevyn Colgan said...

Diane - Have visited, laughed, left a comment (I've also written a Haiku on your mate's Mama's losing it blog!).

Debby - Great! Mowing the lawn is very cathartic.

Persephone - Ha! I know a lot of people who assume that a when I mention the title of a book I'm talking about a movie. Sigh.