Wednesday 16 June 2010

Mondegreens And Understanding Orphans

There's a funny little thing called a mondegreen that you have, no doubt, experienced. Have you ever listened to Purple Haze and wondered whether Jimi Hendrix is saying:

Excuse me while I kiss the sky


Excuse me while I kiss this guy

Have you? That's a mondegreen. A mishearing of  a song. The term was coined way back in 1954 by a lady called Sylvia Wright. She described how her mother used to read her a poem that went:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O' Moray,
And laid him on the green.

And she had always understood that last line to be:

And Lady Mondegreen.

Which makes some sort of sense, an earl suggests a lady. I am as prone to mondegreens as the next man, possibly proner; and my mishearings often make no cents at all. I was once involved in an argument and then a wager about whether the drink sangria is mentioned in Lou Reed's Perfect Day. I insisted that it is not. You see I know the song by heart. It goes:

Just a perfect day
Drinks and grey are in the park

I had never stopped to consider what "grey" would be doing in a park. Mrs Malaprop informs me that at her school the Banarama lyric "Guilty as a girl can be" was universally heard as "Guilty as a cocoa bee". If you're French and perverse (and what Frenchman isn't?) you can wonder gallicly to yourself why Edith Piaf is singing about a pink aeroplane: L'avion rose/La vie en rose.

But the point of this post is not foolish mistakes, but the good ones.

I shall never recover from being given a lovely big hardback collection of Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962-2001. My two favourite lines were gone, vanished, vanquished by the cold, dead hand of print. First, there's the great statement of the human condition in Subterranean Homesick Blues:

Get born, keep on.

I loved that line. All life summed up in four syllables: birth and survival. That rotten book revealed that it was in fact "Get born, keep warm", and I've never been truly happy since. But worse than that mondegreen, much worse was what unambiguous ink did to It's All Over Now Baby Blue. I knew the song started like this:

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last.
But whatever you wish to keep you better grab it fast.
He understands you orphans with his gun.

It's a brilliant line. First you have a reversal, something equivalent to "He nurses you with his fist", but more brilliantly, there's the leaping of categories. Understanding with a gun is what a philosopher would call a category error. A category error is a statement which is not simply wrong, but which could not conceivably be right because words from two different categories have been yoked together.

Salmon cannot read newspapers, but I can imagine one doing so. A salmon reading a newspaper is not a category error. However, "There's too much Tuesday in my rhubarb crumble" is unimaginable as, though Tuesday is a noun, it's not a physical one and could therefore not be mixed up with rhubarb. Nor could you have too little or too much Tuesday. Similarly one cannot understand with a gun in any normal sense. That's what gives Dylan's line its power. It parodies violence by expressing it as a form of comprehension. Clever, eh?

That bloody book.

Yonder stands your orphan with his gun.

I shall maintain till the day I die that my cloth ears improved those songs.

I was reading a friend's website the other day and momentarily misread the line "Next time there better be mistakes" as "Next time there'll be better mistakes."

The Inky Fool listening to Bob Dylan

P.S. A mondegreen is almost the same concept as a holorhyme, about which I blogged in December.


  1. Some good links to mondegreens in the comments section here:

  2. So ... the Lady Mondegreen is still alive, then? She never died? Why does no one TELL me these things?

  3. Not quite a mondegreen but... in 'Live and Let Die' does McCartney sing 'in this ever changing world in which we're living' or - as a critical friend insists - the wholly nonsensical 'in this ever changing world in which we live in'? The latter would be the worst mistake since Linda McCartney.

  4. I run a singing workshop for disabled kids and we've been learning Queen's We Will Rock You. One of our kids thought the line "waving your banner all over the place" was "waving bananas all over the place". Needless to say we've kept the fruity version!