Thanks to the University of Brighton linguistics blog for my inspiration. After reading Liam Scholey’s post about how on earth we all manage to understand Fairytale of New York by the Pogues, I started thinking about Christmas song mondegreens.
A mondegreen is a mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase, often a poem or song lyric. One of the best-known mondegreens can be found in Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix where many people hear ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ instead of the actual lyric which is ‘Excuse me while I kiss the sky‘.
The word mondegreen itself can be traced back to the American writer Sylvia Wright who in 1954 coined the term in her essay ‘The Death of Lady Mondegreen’. As a child, Wright heard a line from a poem as ‘They hae slain the Earl O’Moray, And Lady Mondegreen’. It wasn’t until later she realised that the actual line was: ‘They hae slain the Earl O’Moray, And laid him on the green’.
When we hear a mondegreen we sometimes mishear a word itself, but often we mishear where one word ends and the next one begins, as in the case of the Purple Haze lyric above. This is called misdivision. We reanalyse the sounds that we hear and try to match them with words that we know and ones that we think would fit into the sentence or story we’re hearing.
Because of the way that Shane MacGowan, the lead singer of the Pogues, pronounces (or rather doesn’t pronounce) the words, Fairytale of New York does lend itself to a number of mondegreens. One of the most common being ‘God I’m the lucky one, came in at ten to one’ instead of the actual lyric: ‘Got on a lucky one, came in eighteen to one.’ There are quite a few more mondegreens from this song listed here.
One of my very favourite mondegreens ever comes from a dear friend of mine. After many many years of loving the song Golden Brown by The Stranglers, we were listening to it one time and my friend suddenly asked ‘What’s a mansheron?’ We all looked around puzzled and asked him for some clarification. He explained ‘The first lyrics of the song: “Golden Brown, texture like sun; Lays me down, with my mansherons”. What’s a mansheron?’ To which we all burst out laughing and told him what the actual lyrics are:
‘Golden Brown, texture like sun
Lays me down, with my mind she runs‘
I’m not even sure if it’s a true mondegreen as he made up an entirely new word, but I’ve never forgotten the term mondegreen since that day!
Have you got any mondegreens that you’ve heard? Oh and now you should definitely try listening (and singing) along to Fairytale of New York using the guide in the Brighton blog post. It’s a classic Christmas song. Enjoy.