Lady Mondegreens (why we “kiss this guy”)

buddy-holly-christmas-card-by-pelloEvery baby boomer in America knows that there’s a bathroom on the right.

If you’ve ever misheard a song lyric—as a perfectly reasonable alternative, or at least no less reasonable than the original—you know the concept of Lady Mondegreen. A classic mondegreen is that line from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising”: “There’s a bad moon on the rise.” You know, a bathroom on the right.

This idea is called Lady Mondegreen because of another misheard verse. As a kid, Harper’s writer Sylvia Wright heard a reading of “The Bonny Earl of Moray” this way:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands
Oh, where hae you been?
They hae slay the Earl of Moray
And Lady Mondegreen.

Which made sense; maybe this was a low-body-count scene from Game of Thrones. But no, the last line was actually

And laid him on the green.

Oh. When Wright learned the truth, she found it disappointing. But she’d also found a neologism. In 2008, the people at Merriam-Webster added “mondegreen” to the collegiate dictionary.

I still swear Johnny Rivers was singing about a “secret Asian man[1],” maybe the one guilty of bribery during the Clinton and Carter administrations. Others insist that Pink Floyd said “no Dukes of Hazzard in the classroom[2].” Why not? Both The Wall and the popular TV show came out in 1979. At the millennium, Macy Gray seemed less than upset when her SO left: “I blow bubbles when you are not here[3].”

Social media shows listeners the errors of their ears much faster than one’s friends do, but we’re still hearing lyrics wrong. Witness “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift. Thousands of people swear she’s singing “all the lonely Starbucks lovers[4].” She even tweeted about the mixup in February: “Sending my love to all the lonely Starbucks lovers out there this Valentine’s Day.….even though that is not the correct lyric.”

To which Starbucks tweeted back: “Wait, it’s not?”

I was grinning about this idea two weeks ago (hearing Jimi Hendrix, “ ’scuse me while I kiss this guy[5],” on classic-rock radio), decided to write about it, and promptly forgot. Coincidentally, an article appeared last week on Yahoo Health about why Lady Mondegreens happen so much.

David Gow, a clinical instructor of neurology at Harvard Medical School who researches spoken-language processing, likens parsing song lyrics to understanding someone with an accent. “The question is why speech ever works because you’re always trying to recognize a moving target,” he told Yahoo’s Korin Miller.

Your brain takes its best guess from context* and any previous knowledge of the speaker/singer. Singers often don’t enunciate, and the accompanying music and other sounds make the job that much harder, Gow and colleagues say. Plus, he adds, you’re not looking at the singer—and may not be paying full attention to the song.

(*Your brain guesses according to established patterns, Gow adds. That explains why a lot of people have heard a central line from a Peter Gabriel hit as “don’t you know you’ve got two chocolate monkeys[6].” As a New Yorker who pronounces the key word “chawclit,” I would never mishear that one.)

“Consonants are typically more confused than vowels, he says, and unstressed syllables are more easily confused than stressed syllables,” wrote Miller. “Nouns are also confused more often than verbs.” No wonder so many people have settled on a “sensible” solution like “Starbucks lovers.”

A friend once cracked me up when she sang along to Crystal Gayle, “Doughnuts make my brown eyes blue[7].” (Apparently she wasn’t kidding.) At least now we know why she heard it that way.

[1] “Secret Agent Man.”

[2] “No dark sarcasm in the classroom,” “Another Brick in the Wall.”

[3] “My world crumbles when you are not here,” “I Try.”

[4] “Got a long list of ex-lovers.”

[5] “ ’Scuse me while I kiss the sky,” “Purple Haze.”

[6] “Don’t you know you’ve got to shock the monkey,” “Shock the Monkey.”

[7] “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.”

(c) 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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