Lady Mondegreen

Everyone has done it before, probably by accident or perhaps by malaprop. You’re singing along to a song you like, in the company of a friend, when suddenly they stop you and say, “Wait, what did you just say? You know that’s not the actual lyrics, right?” And you stare at them in disbelief and retort, “No, I think you’re wrong. Bob Marley clearly sings ‘three little birds sitting on my toaster.'”

“Not ‘toaster,'” your friend replies exasperatedly, “why would Bob be talking about a toaster? He says ‘doorstep.‘” And you think about it for a second and then sheepishly come to the realization that your friend must be correct. If you had been talking about Bob Dylan, there might be no guessing what the actual lyrics are without an authoritative reference, but Bob Marley is a lot more straightforward. It turns out that the misinterpretation of lyrics due to a failure to hear the words in a song correctly has a name, coined in the 1950s. One of our go-to contributors for the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova, writes this week about the phenomenon, and you can read some excerpts of her piece below. But before you do so, you might want to listen to pop/country singer/celebrity Taylor Swift, who has a song in her new album 1989 that has elicited many a case of mondegreen during one line in the chorus. It is called “Blank Space,” (you may have heard it on the radio a dozen times already) and to find the mondegreen, you simply have to be primed to hear the word “Starbucks.” Actually, the mondegreen potential is so severe that articles have been written online about it, indicating that you don’t really need to be primed at all.

Here’s Konnikova on the subject:

The term mondegreen is itself a mondegreen. In November, 1954, Sylvia Wright, an American writer, published a piece in Harpers where she admitted to a gross childhood mishearing. When she was young, her mother would read to her from the “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry,” a 1765 book of popular poems and ballads. Her favorite verse began with the lines, “Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands / Oh, where hae ye been? / They hae slain the Earl Amurray, / And Lady Mondegreen.” Except they hadn’t. They left the poor Earl and “laid him on the green.” He was, alas, all by himself.

The simplest cases occur when we just mishear something: it’s noisy, and we lack the visual cues to help us out (this can happen on the phone, on the radio, across cubicles—basically anytime we can’t see the mouth of the speaker). One of the reasons we often mishear song lyrics is that there’s a lot of noise to get through, and we usually can’t see the musicians’ faces. Other times, the misperceptions come from the nature of the speech itself, for example when someone speaks in an unfamiliar accent or when the usual structure of stresses and inflections changes, as it does in a poem or a song. What should be clear becomes ambiguous, and our brain must do its best to resolve the ambiguity.

If you’re interested in reading the full article, click here.

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