Why We Mishear Lyrics

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 2 2015 @ 4:56pm

Maria Konnikova explains:

Human speech occurs without breaks: when one word ends and another begins, we don’t actually pause to signal the transition. When you listen to a recording of a language that you don’t speak, you hear a continuous stream of sounds that is more a warbling than a string of discernable words. We only learn when one word stops and the next one starts over time, by virtue of certain verbal cues – for instance, different languages have different general principles of inflection (the rise and fall of a voice within a word or a sentence) and syllabification (the stress patterns of syllables) – combined with actual semantic knowledge. …

A common cause of mondegreens, in particular, is the oronym: word strings in which the sounds can be logically divided multiple ways. One version that [Steven] Pinker describes goes like this: Eugene O’Neill won a Pullet Surprise. The string of phonetic sounds can be plausibly broken up in multiple ways – and if you’re not familiar with the requisite proper noun, you may find yourself making an error. In similar fashion, Bohemian Rhapsody becomes Bohemian Rap City. Children might wonder why Olive, the other reindeer, was so mean to Rudolph.

Speaking of mondegreens, or misheard song lyrics, many readers submitted examples of them during our long-running thread on eggcorns:

The classic one is from Purple Haze, where Jimi Hendrix sings “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.” Or Elton John’s famous chorus “Hold me closer, Tony Danza.” Hotel California has that great line about the “warm smell of fajitas, rising up through the air.” And I swear in the Rush song “Free Will,” Geddy Lee sings “You can choose a bathysphere. I will choose free will.”

I’m sure some of your readers can find a few more.

To say the least:

My favorite is my aunt Anne’s version of a Beatles refrain: “She’s got a tic in her eye/she’s got a tic in her eye/she’s got a tic in her eye/and SHE DON’T CARE!”

Another:

Whenever someone slipped up in our house, we just sang the Rolling Stones hit: “I’ll never leave your pizza burning.”

Another:

I suppose I was fantasizing about threesomes when I heard the line from The Young Rascals’ “Groovin'” that goes “life will be ecstasy/you and me endlessly” as “you and me and Leslie.”

Another:

As a longtime radio DJ, I have a lifetime of mondegreens from our request line.  For example: “Hey, man, let’s hear some Kiss, ‘I Wanna Rock & Roll All Night, And Part Of Every Day!'”

And I recall reading in Art Linkletter’s book Kids Say The Darndest Things that he heard a child singing “God Bless America” that included, ” … stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with a light from a bulb.”

Another

My cousin Erika thought that “America the Beautiful” was about her. (She’s now a speech and language pathologist. Funny how that works.)

Another from that song:

“O beautiful for spaceship guys…”

Another patriotic tune:

The last line of the Star Spangled Banner starts “O’er the land of the free”, yet almost everybody sings it, “for the land of the free”.  The line refers to the flag (which is the point of the song) flying OVER (poetically contracted) the land of the free and home of the brave, not flying for it.  Get it right people; it’s the National Anthem for goodness sake!

And another:

In my elementary school we sometimes sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” in the mornings along with the Pledge of Allegiance. I always thought the “of thee I sing” part was “of the icing”, as in the icing on the cake.

From Down Under:

I’m reminded of a line in Australia’s national anthem, which goes “Our land abounds in nature’s gifts.” My dad always sang, “Our land abounds in nature strips”. In Australian English, that’s the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the road, which you find all over suburbia.

Another cautions:

If you value your sanity, do not get sucked into the “mishearing” mire. In the San Francisco Bay Area where I used to live, we had a columnist who started writing about mondegreens several years back, and after inviting reader submissions, it quickly degenerated into what has become an annual bacchanalia of really bad puns. Be forewarned!

This will probably be the only batch of reader submissions we’ll post, since a thread on misheard song lyrics would be never-ending flood to the in-tray. But here’s one more:

In Winter Wonderland, I thought the line “we’ll conspire as we dream by the fire” was “we’ll perspire as we dream by the fire.”

Lastly, a reader looks to the origin of the word:

The mondegreen takes its name from the misheard last line of a 17th century ballad, where the last two lines are “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray, And laid him on the green”, but an American author heard “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray, And Lady Mondegreen.”  There’s a great Wiki discussion of the term here. And there are billions of entertaining examples here.