Mondegreen: Mishearing the lyrics of a song


By Les Linz

Mondegreen. OK, I never heard of that word, either.

Here’s the definition: “A misunderstood or misinterpreted word or phrase resulting from a mishearing of the lyrics of a song.”

Apparently, the term originated with American writer Sylvia Wright, who coined it in 1954 when writing about how when she was a girl listening to her mother recite “The Bonny Earl of Murray” (from Percy’s Reliques), she misheard “layd him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen.”

Kids should be entitled to an auditory mistake every now and then (i.e. the 4-year-old that was alleged to have misunderstood the famous Lord’s Prayer line as “And forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets,” a malapropism for the ages.

Long past childhood, my wife is a lyric savant. Then again, so is just about every other female I’ve ever met.

I’m not surprised. For centuries, women were required to tend to cooking, cleaning and other sundry tasks while concurrently at the ready to hear the slightest of muffled infant cries.

Back in the day (when dinosaurs roamed the earth), song lyrics were simple — so simple that even men could understand them. Ahhh for the good ole days.

In this day and age, it seems like songwriters have a contest to see who can write the most convoluted verbiage possible. It’s as though they can’t get the job done unless they’ve first ingested 5 pounds of hallucinogens. More importantly, you need to consume 10 pounds of them just to get a clue as to what they’re talking about, much less discern exactly what they’re saying.

Enter “WKRP in Cincinnati.”

One of my all-time favorite sitcoms (Memories of Les Nessman’s heartfelt “Oh the humanity” rings permanently in my ears and undoubtedly likewise the ears of turkeys everywhere).

The ballad at the beginning of the show is touching, and even I — yes, a male — can understand both the words themselves and the meaning behind them. Fast forward to the end of the show? Forget it.

As the story goes, it was both composed and performed by Atlanta musician Jim Ellis. When attempting to come up with the closing music, he didn’t yet have the lyrics, so he sang some “nonsense words,” ensuring Hugh Wilson, the show’s producer, would better know how it might sound.

Wilson loved it and kept them, as he thought it was a great parody depicting how nonsensical some lyrics have become. Right you were, Hugh. Indeed.

A few more mondegreen examples.

Every Creedence Clearwater Revival fan is familiar with “Bad Moon Rising.” Great song, but did you know that according to some mondegreenists, every verse ends with “There’s a bathroom on the right?”

Or my favorite, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Any Beatles or Elton John aficionado likewise understands how “The girl with colitis goes by.” I can only imagine what she must have had for dinner.

On Aug. 6, 1976, I heard Manfred Mann’s “Blinded by the Light” on radio for the first time during what I affectionately call my “summer of diss/contempt,” and so it goes with many a young man about to enter his senior year of high school.

In preparation for today’s column, I revisited what I had thought the lyrics to be at the time. I was a little off.

Here then are the words that I used to sing to the song:

“Blinded by the light. Wrapped up like a douche, you know a rumor in the night (Repeat chorus). Madman drummer does his venues in the summer with a teenage Dixie mask. And the man with the most on the adolescent coast is wading to his bed. With a boulder on my shoulder, I’m feelin’ kind of older, I chipped the merry-go-round. With a fairy amazing, seizing and wheezing the calliope crashed to the ground. It’s too low and it crashed to the ground (Repeat chorus). Some silicone sister with the manager monsieur told me I got what it takes. She said I’ll turn you sonny into something strong. There’s a song with a funky break. And go God Mozart was checkin’ out the weather cart seein’ it was safe outside. And little early burly came by in his curly whirly and asked me if I needed a ride (Repeat chorus). She got down but she never got tried she’s gonna make it through the night (X 2).”

To be sure, there is a much longer concert version (or longer FM radio version I’d never heard) with further lyrics I’d have likewise deciphered incorrectly.

So what socially responsible sage advice can I offer from all of this?

The next time you’re at a concert where “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is playing and a girl with colitis goes by, reach out with compassion and emphatically proclaim, “There’s a bathroom on the right.”

Les Linz of Seymour writes the “Humor: More or Les” column. For information about Linz, visit his author page. Send comments to [email protected].

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