mondegreen

It was cleaning-up time after yet another lively word tasting at Domus Logogustationis, and our own especially lively word taster, Elisa Lively, was in the kitchen doing the wash-up while a few of the rest of us gathered dishes and brought them in.

I came in with a stack of bowls, set them down next to the sink. Elisa was sudsed up the elbows and singing Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” happily:

“Slow-motion Walter, the fire engine guy…”

I choked back a guffaw, pretended it was a cough, and headed back out. (The real words are “Smoke on the water and fire in the sky.”) Presently I returned with a stack of plates. She had switched to Abba:

“See that girl, watch her scream, kicking the dancing queen…”

I paused for a split second, goggled, set the plates and retreated. (The original words are “See that girl, watch that scene, dig in the dancing queen.”) I gathered an assortment of wine glasses, including my own nearly empty one, shouldered the swinging kitchen door open and headed back in. Just as I was tossing back the last of my Zinfandel, I clicked in to her rendition of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love”:

“You might as well face it, you’re a dick with a glove.”

I did what in the comedy business is known as a spit take. That is to say, I sprayed my Zinfandel across the tile floor and commenced coughing. I barely managed to set the glasses down without demolishing them.

Elisa turned, solicitous. She reached for a jug on the counter and poured me a glass. And with it she started in on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”:

“You need Kool-Aid, baby I’m not fooling…”

I held up my hand and coughed and gasped and finally managed to swallow a bit of the Kool-Aid. “Good grief,” I said, “were you tasting mondegreen tonight?”

“Mondegreen?” Elisa said, fetching a mop. “No, I stuck with the Kool-Aid.”

“No, I mean the word. Mondegreen. I’ll take that as a no.”

“I don’t think I’ve heard it,” Elisa said. “It sounds kind of like a cheese. Or maybe a country – no, that’s Montenegro. Is it related to verdigris?”

“Not even to a fair degree,” I said. “It comes from a mishearing by the writer Sylvia Wright. When she was a kid, she enjoyed hearing her mother read from Percy’s Reliques, and the first stanza, by her hearing, ended ‘The hae slain the Earl Amurray / And Lady Mondegreen.’ But actually it was ‘the Earl O’ Moray / And laid him on the green.’ So in 1954 Wright published an article in Harper’s in which she gave such mishearings the name mondegreens.”

“Oh!” said Elisa. “Like when I was a kid and I sang in church about ‘gladly the cross-eyed bear’ – and every Christmas I’d sing ‘Good tidings we bring to you and your thing.'”

“Exactly,” I said. “Mishearings, typically funny, of song lyrics. Often they’re actually less plausible than the real lyrics. I don’t remember making any really funny mistakes, but I remember hearing Boney M’s ‘Rasputin’ and thinking the line ‘Russia’s greatest love machine’ was ‘Rickashane a slokashi,’ some kind of imitation Russian. It really says something about the human brain, the things we’ll fill in when we can’t quite make out the words. Sort of like the weird things we see in the dark – why would we think what we’re seeing is a house plant when it could so easily be a four-foot spider?”

“Well, Mondegreen does sound like a reasonable name,” Elisa said. “It has two recognizable parts, with the monde like from French for ‘world’. It’s like some… relic from a green world!”

“Or from the salad days of the listener, when she was green in judgement. We do have lots of words with m and nd, like mandate, mend, mind, Monday, mundungus…”

“Green Monday,” Elisa said. “Isn’t Mundungus just a name from Harry Potter?”

“Also a word for bad tobacco. Green mundungus would really be nasty, I’m sure.”

“Mondo bizarro,” Elisa said, possibly agreeing. “But speaking of salad… there’s some you could help put away.” She opened a cupboard to reveal a bunch of plastic containers suited for the task, and sang out, as from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Here we are now, in containers.” (It’s really “Here we are now, entertain us.”)

I smiled. As I started scooping some Waldorf salad into one of the containers, I started in a version of Toto’s “Africa” (the refrain of which really goes “Gonna take a lot to take me away from you / There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do / I bless the rains down in Africa…”): “Gonna take a lot to take me away from food…”

Elisa added the next line: “There’s nothing that a hundred men on Mars could ever do.”

We sang together, her washing, me scooping: “I left my brains down in Africa…”

Thanks to Allan Jackson for suggesting – a while ago – mondegreen, and to www.kissthisguy.com for most of the mishearings used above.

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6 responses to “mondegreen

  1. Mondegreens — both intentional and un- — are one of my favorite wordplay topics. I still can’t hear anything but “wrapped up like a douche” in Mannfred Mann’s “Blinded by the Light.”

  2. An old friend of mine, when he was at school, believed that the words of the hymn were

    Onward, Christian soldiers,
    Marching as to war,
    With the cross old Jesus
    Going on before.

  3. Pingback: mantle, mantel | Sesquiotica

  4. I assumed that avatar of Tachybaptus is a dog ( not a bird); upon looking closely I realized that it’s a bird. Is it ‘Pareidolia’ or something else? What is cousin of Mondegreen for visual sense?

  5. It looks like a duck to me.

    I can never listen to Blowing in the Wind anymore without hearing someone else’s misheard lyrics, “the ants are my friends, they’re blowing in the wind, the ants are blowing in the wind.” Totally cracks me up.

    And I thought the lyrics were, ” . . .watch that scene, digging (as in enjoying the sight of) the dancing queen.” Of course, I thought the lyrics for Take a Chance on Me were ” . . . Olly outs in free, take a chance on me.”

    • My avatar is a dabchick (see this blog a couple of weeks ago) aka Little Grebe, Tachybaptus ruficollis. This is my own photograph, taken in London’s Regent’s Park looking down from a bridge. Dabchicks are streamlined birds and can move at startling speed on or under water, but when on the surface they fluff up their feathers to a state of complete rotundity.

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