As we hurtle into the festive season we will be hearing a lot of familiar songs associated with this time of the year. However, it's probably true that most of us can't remember more than a few lines of a song and even then don't get the words right.
Welcome to the world of “aural malapropisms” which is not an obscure ailment but simply the mishearing of song lyrics. Christmas songs are not immune. According to a US survey, many kids believe the third verse of Away in a Manger begins “the cattle are lonely”, rather than the correct “the cattle are lowing.”
Even Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer can cause confusion. An American teacher tells of one lad who unintentionally invented a new name for one of the reindeer. He thought the line “All of the other reindeer” was actually “Olive the other reindeer.”
There is an official name for a misheard lyric — mondegreen. A brief explanation is required: The word was originally coined by a woman who was fond of an old Scottish ballad, The Bonnie Earl of Murray. To her ears, one verse went:
“Ye highlands and ye lowlands,
Oh where have you been?
They have slain the Earl of Murray
And Lady Mondegreen.”
It was only after years of lamenting the tragic fate of Lady Mondegreen, that she learned that the last line was actually “and laid him on the green.” That lady didn’t know what she had started.
Over the years I have collected a host of mondegreens, many submitted by readers after a previous column some time ago. It seems just about everyone has their own mondegreen experience. As ridiculous as some of the misheard lyrics seem, when you see the correct version they aren’t that far off the mark.
I admit that upon hearing Elton John’s Bennie and the Jets it still sounds to me that he’s singing “she got electric boobs” when in reality it’s the less exciting “electric boots.”
Elton’s songs seem to be particularly vulnerable to dodgy ears. Someone thought that in Goodbye Yellow Brick Road Elton was singing “you can’t help meeting your pen pal” rather than the correct “you can’t plant me in your penthouse.”
Another reader had Elton singing “Rocket Man, burning all the trees off every lawn” when the spaceman was “burning up his fuse out here alone.”
One reader thought the lyrics to the Kinks classic You Really Got Me went “You got me so I can’t see Batman” rather than “can’t sleep at night”.
A Beatles fan for years thought in Hey Jude Paul McCartney sang “Remember, sweet lettuce under your skin” rather than “Remember, to let her under your skin.”
Another believed the lyrics for Pink Floyd’s The Wall went “the dogs suck acid in the classroom” which admittedly sounds a bit Pink Floydish. Alas, the real lyrics were “no dark sarcasm in the classroom.”
One lady originally thought Crystal Gayle’s big hit was “Donuts make my brown eyes blue.”
A mondegreen could even be heard regularly in the Bangkok Post office in the 1970s. A Thai paste-up man Chalie who hailed from Kalasin, was an enthusiastic singer.
He would warble away every evening while ensuring the headlines were the right way up on tomorrow’s front page.
One of his favourite songs was Guantanamera, the Cuban song which had been a big hit for the Sandpipers in the late 1960s.
Every now and again Chalie would burst forth in his rich Isan accent with the Guantanamera song, although to his ears Guantanamera was actually “Want an American”.
It always sparked smiles in the newsroom. He also treated us to the 1974 disco hit Kung Fu Fighting, but when it came to the lyrics thankfully restricted himself to the opening chorus “Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh”.
It was not only Chalie who had trouble pronouncing Guantanamera.
One reader told me that as a kid she originally thought the opening line was “One tonne of melons”.
Some mondegreens even became part of folklore. Many thought the Jimi Hendrix song Purple Haze included the line “S’cuse me while I kiss this guy” when Hendrix was actually kissing “the sky”.
When the Credence Clearwater Revival hit Bad Moon Rising first came out the chorus “there’s a bad moon on the rise” was regularly misheard by fans as “there’s a bathroom on the right.” The band became aware of this and at concerts lead singer John Fogerty would sometimes jokingly sing the bathroom lyrics to the delight of the crowd.
Sting’s group The Police were always a good source for a mondegreen. Someone believed Message in a Bottle began with “a year has passed since I broke my nose” which creates a more interesting scenario than the real lyrics, “wrote my note”.
Another Police number Don’t Stand So Close To Me sounds a lot more interesting with a reader’s “that big pineapple cart” rather the actual lyrics “that book by Nabokov.”
Only the lonely
If nothing else this might have got you humming over breakfast a few long-forgotten songs, or even singing a few words… if you can remember them of course. Anyway, during the festive season, keep an eye open for Olive the unknown reindeer and give her a wave. Like the cattle in the manger, she might be a bit on the lonely side.