There are words we learn from songs; they rise out of the music and appear in our ears. Sometimes they’re completely new words to us, words we have to figure out from context. Boogaloo in “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” was one such for me. Sometimes they’re words that are so reasonable in form we may not realize we haven’t heard them before. The Beatles were good for that for me: I easily accepted Blackburn, Lancashire in “A Day in the Life” even if I didn’t know its exact location, and hogshead in “For the Benefit of Mister Kite” even if I didn’t have an exact mental image of one.
And sometimes they’re not actually real words at all. There are no naspritus trees in Tripoli; no one is going, now or at any other time, into a Classiomatic. Welcome to the wide world of mondegreens, misheard words that lie in wait in lyrics and seize and drag away your mind as a leopard seizes and drags away a hare.
Music is an especially fertile field for mishearing because it interferes with our usual way of identifying sounds. We recognize vowels and consonants by the resonances they create in our mouths. Every sound that comes from our larynx has not just its base frequency (its pitch, in musical terms) but a number of harmonics above it (resonances that are some multiple of the base frequency), and the ones that come out the strongest are the ones that echo at just the right frequency for the size of the cavity they’re resonating in. Your tongue, as it constricts the air flow to make speech sounds, makes an angle that creates two resonating chambers, one at the back and one towards the lips, and the smaller each chamber is, the higher the resonances that dominate. The one towards the lips is also smaller than the one at the back, so you have two sets of resonances that can be variously closer together or farther apart, and their relation tells us what sound we’re hearing. There are some other, even higher sets of resonance that also come into play, but they mainly help us hear things like the difference between a vowel with a retroflex /r/ and one without it, or a vowel that’s nasalized (representing a following /m/, for instance) and one that’s not. Those sets of resonances are higher and not as strong as the main two sets. You can read and hear lots more about all that if you want.
Anyway, the thing is that singing can interfere with all that at least a little, and distract from it too, and the instruments accompanying the voice can add to the confusion, and the lyrics are very often not the kinds of strings of words we usually heard, and they’re not said with the usual speech rhythms. So I can listen to “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and think I’m hearing “Hit me with those lettuce and beans” when it’s actually “Hit me with those laser beams.” Why “lettuce and beans”? I dunno, man, I assumed it was some Cockney rhyming slang.
And that’s the thing: we do a lot of our language learning by abduction. I don’t mean by kidnapping; I mean by observing an instance (or what we take to be an instance) and inferring a rule on the basis of it. It’s the reverse of deduction, which is where we know the rule and work out the instance. It’s backfill: we make a decision and create assumptions to justify it.
Remember, too, that we don’t hear words as discrete items in our sound stream. We have to work out where the divides are. And we don’t always work them out right. That’s how a norange and a nadder became an orange and an adder, but that’s a whole nother thing.
But today I’m talking about a lepress. And Africa.
You know “Africa,” right? The ’80s hit by Toto? I’ve always liked that song, and I can sing you all the words. It has a few slightly overworked images, true, but the music is so nice. One line that has always seemed just a little pushed for me is “I know that I must do what’s right, sure as Kilimanjaro rises like a lepress above the Serengeti”:
Rises like a lepress? I guess that means it sits like a female leopard, soft, dappled, muscular, ready to take whatever it wants to have. I never spent much time thinking about it.
If I had, I might have thought, “Wait, a lepress isn’t to a leopard as a lioness is to a lion. That’s not quite the right derivation. Leopard comes from leo, a root we all know refers to lions, and pard, which is from a Greek word for panthers. There’s no basis for deleting the last d. That should be leopardess.” Which in fact is true. A female leopard is a leopardess, if you insist on using diœcious terminology that treats the masculine as the default and the feminine as the marked.
But he’s clearly not singing leopardess. I mean, singers can mispronounce things – heck, Tom Cochrane sang Somalian as “soma-lion” in “White Hot” – but there sure ain’t no [d] in there. So what’s a lepress? Could it be formed from leporine? Isn’t that the adjective for leopards?
No, it’s not. It’s the adjective for hares. If lepress were formed from leporine, there would be a great big lady Bugs Bunny rising above the Serengeti. (Bugs Bunny may be called a rabbit but is obviously – by body shape, ear length, etc. – a hare. They’re not the same thing.)
Of course, following the model of seamster and seamstress, or mister and mistress, or matter and mattress, a lepress is a female leper. (OK, lay off, I was only joking about mattress.) And this is true: the dictionary entry for lepress – if your dictionary has one, as the Oxford English Dictionary does – tells you first that no one uses it anymore, and second that when they did it meant a female leper. As in a girl or woman affected with leprosy.
There is exactly no reason for a lepress to be rising above the Serengeti in that song.
I’ve been mishearing and misconstruing it for years. And by “for years,” I mean the whole time between when it came out in September 1982 and today, December 10, 2017. I only found out because I’m not the only one who was hearing lepress, and one of the others commented on Twitter about it: https://twitter.com/jamesfraleigh/status/939900206635773953
If you don’t feel like clicking, I’ll tell you: the real words are “sure as Kilimajaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.”
That makes more sense than a lepress, doesn’t it?
Sure, but why would I think Olympus? I mean, it’s just, you know, a byword for a high, noble mountain. But not one in Africa per se, right? Look, we just heard “The wild dogs cry out in the night as they grow restless longing for some solitary company,” so my mind’s on animals. And leopards have a greater affinity in my mind to Kilimanjaro than some Greek mountain does. And it’s not like I see the word Olympus all the time. Well, OK, I literally carry a camera made by Olympus in my pocket every day, but, uh, I didn’t in 1982, or for years after.
It’s those higher resonances. I just wasn’t getting them right. I mean the resonances of the lofty idealized mountain of Greek gods, yeah, but also the ones that would have told me that I was hearing a nasalized vowel before the /p/ and not an /r/ after it. Remember how I mentioned that those higher resonances are more easily drowned out?
What was drowning them out? I dunno, man, the wild dogs crying out in the night, maybe? All I can say is that once something like that gets set into my head, it’s gonna take a lot to take me away from it.