With Sellotape and knives – mondegreens in all their glory
We’ve all experienced those awkward moments when we have completely misheard what somebody has said.
Did you know that if you have ever misheard a song, poem or TV commercial, there’s a name for your mistake? The mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase or lyric is known as a mondegreen.
Mondegreen is a strange word isn’t it? It sounds like a nonsensical made-up word and that’s because it is. The term was coined by author Sylvia Wright in 1954 when writing about her own childhood. She recalled the day when her mother had read from the Scottish ballad “The Bonny Earl of Murray” which features the line “layd him on the green“. Sylvia misheard this as “Lady mondegreen”. Her name for aural malapropisms has stuck.
What causes mondegreens?
There are many reasons why we might mishear a phrase or song. In many instances it is simply the poor enunciation of the speaker or singer that causes a problem. Strong accents can certainly be problematic, and many singers boast curious mannerisms which cause confusion.
Mondegreens can also be the result of what is known as confirmation bias. Songs and poems often feature unusual vocabulary or phrases which we may not have heard before. Our minds can’t process these words because they are outside of our usual experience and don’t make any sense to us.
We resolve this problem by subconsciously substituting the words for something more familiar. In other words, we hear what we expect to hear rather than what we have actually heard.
To confuse us further, song lyrics must be written to fit the beat and melody of the tune. This may result in the use of unusual phraseology and split sentences. Singers also find themselves having to emphasise different words or syllables than they would choose to when speaking.
The perfect mondegreen storm
Almost any song could inspire a mondegreen, but some offer much more potential than others. The Cutter by Echo and the Bunnymen is surely the perfect storm when it comes to mondegreens.
The lyrics make no sense at all. There’s a surreal quality to the song which defies comprehension and the singer, Ian McCulloch, is a Liverpudlian with a strong accent and poor enunciation.
It is for these reasons that I forgive myself for having spent many years wondering why McCulloch was singing about “Sellotape and knives” when the lyric concerned is “with seven tapered knives”.
In addition, I simply couldn’t understand the seventh line which sounded to me like “cudden cudder muster”. I thought that this phrase could only be explained by McCulloch having been drunk when he wrote the lyrics.
It was when I Googled the lyrics recently that I realised that what I should have been hearing was “couldn’t cut the mustard”!
Mondegreens and psychological discomfort
There’s no doubt that mondegreens reinforce your belief that what you think you have heard is correct. Once your mind has settled on alternative lyrics, that is all you ever hear, even when you know what the lyrics really are.
Some psychologists suggest that this is because our minds inevitably settle on words that we are comfortable with, understand or want to hear. Although I can’t imagine why I wanted to hear the word Sellotape!
Many experts also feel that mondegreens are our subconscious attempts to make sense of the implausible. The trouble with that theory is that mondegreens are often less plausible than the original lyrics, witness “cudden cudder muster”!
Mondegreens and language
The majority of mondegreens are the result of people mishearing lyrics sung in their own language. Such errors become almost inevitable if you are listening to a song sung in a foreign language, especially when you don’t speak it! Your ears and little grey cells work hard to decipher the words. But often interpret these as words that you already know rather than what is actually being sung.
For years, I was completely convinced that Josh Groban’s beautiful “Gira Con Me”, which is sung in Italian, extolled the virtues of Limoncello. The lyric is actually “ci sono strade azzurre nel cielo” which means “there are blue roads in the sky”. What a shame. I rather liked the idea of a song about a delicious drink.
When mondegreens become the official lyrics
From time to time, a mondegreen is repeated so often that it eventually replaces the original lyrics of a song. The traditional ditty “The Twelve Days of Christmas” originally featured the line “four colly birds”. The word colly means to render something black but is somewhat obscure and rarely used. Perhaps that is why the line had become “four calling birds” by 1909 and that is the version of the song which is still used today.
It would appear that we are so determined to make sense of lyrics and dialogue that our minds summon mondegreens even when what we are hearing is supposed to be gobbledygook. Take the infamous case of McDonald’s cursing Minions. In 2015, McDonalds featured Minion toys in their happy meals to celebrate the release of the Minions movie. Many parents complained that the talking toys were using offensive language! They weren’t, of course!
It would be interesting to hear what psychologists make of this amusing series of mondegreens.
The darker side of mondegreens
Any recording of music or speech could be misheard. The resulting mondegreens are usually amusing and completely harmless. However, sometimes a misinterpretation of recorded speech can have dire consequences.
Covert recordings are often used as evidence in criminal trials. These can be of very poor quality. When it is difficult to understand what is being said, transcripts are made for the benefit of the court. But if the sound quality is so poor, it raises the possibility of inaccurate transcripts. Juries could be told that a defendant has said something incriminating when they haven’t.
Mondegreens deliver a wonderful world of amusing misunderstandings. Some inspire debate, others change song lyrics forever.
A few see innocent people convicted of crimes. It pays to be aware that your brain doesn’t always accurately interpret what you have heard.
Singing the wrong ABBA lyrics at the karaoke bar might injure your pride but won’t hurt anyone. Being told that a defendant has said “I was carrying my gun” when they actually said “I was calling my Mum” is a more serious matter.
What are your favourite mondegreens?