[SCENE: Jessie is driving the car. Beside her in the passenger seat is her loving partner and in the back are her three year old son and sister. The Pretenders song 'Brass in Pocket’ comes on the radio. It is a bright, sunny day, and Jessie is feeling a little sassy, so - loudly and joyously - she begins to sing along. Within a minute every person in the car is convulsing with mocking laughter…]
Partner: What did you just sing then?
Sister: Something about bees?
Partner: And biceps, I definitely heard BICEPS
Son: Mummy sings buzzy beeeeeeeees
ALL: hee hee ahahaha AHA HAHAHA [wiping tears of mirth from their eyes]
OK, so I’m no stranger to a misheard lyric or two. The line "Got rhythm I can’t miss a beat" in that particular song does sound to me like "Got rid of my nest of bees", and I’ve always sung "Gonna use my biceps" instead of "Gonna use my sidestep" in the chorus but SO WHAT PEOPLE? It’s endearing! Besides, it’s not my fault Chrissie Hynde appears to have a mouth full of marbles half the time…
But did you know that mishearing or misinterpreting a phrase in such a way that a new meaning is implied has a name? The term ‘mondegreen’ was first coined by American writer Sylvia Wright in her essay 'The Death of Lady Mondegreen', published in Harper’s Magazine in 1954. In the essay, Wright described how as a young girl, she misheard the last line of the first stanza of the 17th-century ballad 'The Bonny Earl O’ Moray':
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O' Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
The actual fourth line is "And laid him on the green". Wright explained the need for a new term "since no one else has thought up a word for them... and they are better than the original."
The existence of mondegreens is thought to relate to the idea of ‘cognitive dissonance’. Not being able to decipher words in our native tongue makes us feel uncomfortable, so we compensate by trying to fill in the ‘gaps’ in order to make sense of what we are hearing.
Many of the best-known mondegreens appear in popular music. Credence Clearwater Revival helpfully point out "There’s a bathroom on the right" in Bad Moon Rising and in the anthem Purple Haze Jimi Hendrix pleads "'Scuse me while I kiss this guy".
In Blinded by the Light, Mannfred Mann’s Earth Band incite endless confusion over the line 'wrapped up like a douche, you know the rumour in the night' ('Revved up like a deuce another runner in the night'). And the Christmas carol Jingle Bells reveals “Olive, the other reindeer” is a big meanie (“All of the other reindeer”).
The Go-Go’s famously sing about "Alex the Seal" (Our lips are sealed) while Pat Benetar hollers “Hit me with your pet shark” (Hit me with your best shot.) Elton John prefers 80s TV stars - “Hold me closer Tony Danza” (Hold me closer tiny dancer), and the Beatles are concerned when “The girl with colitis goes by” (The girl with kaleidoscope eyes).
But my particular favourites come from Led Zeppelin, who sing “And there’s a wino down the road – I should have stolen Oreos” (And as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than our souls) and Bachman Turner Overdrive’s rockin’ ditty "Makin’ carrot biscuits" (Taking Care of Business).
“Slow walking Walter, the fire engine guy” by Deep Purple is just funny (smoke on the water, fire in the sky), as is “You made the rice, I made the gravy” by Billy Joel (You may be right, I may be crazy).
Then there is the example of the ‘reverse mondegreen’ where nonsensical lyrics can be interpreted as rational text. Wikipedia offers the example of Mairzy Doats, a 1943 novelty song by Milton Drake, Al Hoffman, and Jerry Livingston:
Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
A kiddley divey too, wooden shoe
The clue to deciphering the mondegreen is contained in the bridge:
If the words sound queer and funny to your ear,
A little bit jumbled and jivey,
Sing "Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.
Have you stumbled over a mondegreen – or do you have a favourite misinterpreted song lyric?
World's Greatest Shave
This week, Lovatts staff held a morning tea to raise money for the Leukaemia Foundation. Many had their heads shaved or hair coloured to help support a member of our team who has recently been diagnosed with this disease. You can watch the video here - look out for the Lovatts CEO sporting a fetching mohawk!
Video: Dominic Lovatt