Arts, Culture & Media

The spread of mondegreens should have ended with the Internet — but it hasn't

Jimi Hendrix_Feature.jpg

Jimi Hendrix performing live onstage.


David Redfern/Reuters

You may not know what “mondegreen” means, but you definitely have a great mondegreen story — like maybe mishearing the chorus for the Cuban song “Guantanamera” as "One ton tomato. I ate a one ton tomato.”

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The word mondegreen was coined in an essay by writer Sylvia Wright in which she described misinterpreting a line from the Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl of Moray." The actual line was, “They hae slain the Earl o' Moray, And laid him on the green.”

What did she hear? “They hae slain the Earl o' Moray, And Lady Mondegreen.”

It turns out there are scientific reasons for why it’s so easy to misinterpret songs and poems. The first thing you have to understand is that “when we understand what someone says, it’s always at least partly a hallucination," says Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania,

Extracting meaning from sound actually depends on a combination of hearing and hoping.

“There’s a piece of what we understand that comes from the sound that comes in our ear," Liberman explains, but "there’s a piece of what we understand that comes from the expectations in our brain."

When that piece of sound contains weird metaphors or jarring imagery — or is just plain hard to hear — people tend to translate it into something that makes more sense to them. "And, of course, songs tend to have lyrics that are a little bit unexpected or unusual,” Liberman adds. “It’s what makes songs interesting.”

It’s also what makes mondegreens interesting — often more interesting, or at least way funnier, than the original lyrics themselves. For example: “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” instead of “Excuse me while I kiss the sky,” from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”

If you need a good mondegreen, you can check out Kiss This Guy, a website dedicated to them. You could also buy the book of mondegreens that hit the bestseller list in Germany.

In some countries, like Russia, mondegreens have even become a genre unto themselves. I talked to Anya Krushelnitskaya, who grew up in Soviet Russia, and I came to feel that a closed society provides the perfect laboratory for studying the spread and mutation of the mondegreen.

“We did have tiny, tiny holes in the Iron Curtain through which the lyrics would come in,” Krushelnitskaya tells me. That process involved somebody well-connected — like the son of a diplomat — selling liner notes they were able to smuggle into the country on the black market.

These lyrics were then disseminated by people who copied them by hand, like an epic game of “Telephone” played in an unfamiliar language. And since western pop circulated on homemade cassette tapes that were dubbed and redubbed — or primitive vinyl records carved out of x-rays — degraded sound quality was another big impediment to figuring out the words. It’s easy to see how mondegreens became the norm, not the exception.

But what may have begun as an honest effort to figure out the lyrics to popular Western songs soon morphed into a vibrant subgenre of soundalikes. For instance, Anya explains, The Beatles’ song, “Yellow Submarine” became, “Y’ela Margarin" — "She was eating margarine.”

These intentional mondegreens were funny, but they also served as Trojan horses for political commentary. Take another Beatles song, "Yesterday," which Anya says was sung as the Russian-English mashup:

“Esti Dai (give me some food)

All my roubles seem so far away.”

There are those who believe that Lady Mondegreen has finally been slain by insidious lyrics websites and their cold, efficient databases. The New York Times Magazine bemoaned this scourge, as has The Guardian

But lyrics sites aren’t slaying mondegreens — they’re spreading them.

“We crowdsourced all our lyrics," says Shawn Setaro, former editor-in-chief of one of the biggest lyrics sites on the web, Genius. "Anyone could add lyrics, anyone could edit lyrics. They would type and transcribe. And it got to the point where when new popular songs came out, they would be on the site six, seven, eight minutes after they’re released."

Those first stabs eventually get refined on Genius, but not every lyrics site strives for accuracy. One thing other sites do is solicit lyrics anonymously via email, with no vetting whatsoever. Another thing they do, Setaro tells me, “is just crawl and steal from other lyrics sites. So it becomes this giant circle.”

How does Genius know other sites steal from them? They did an experiment and subtly messed with the lyrics to some of their new songs, just to see if other sites were grabbing them. Sure enough, within hours, several sites had posted Genius’ lyrics — mistakes and all.

So it’s often the initial, uncrowdsourced version — the one fans pound out quickly — that gets picked up and spread around.

Even when lyrics sites go straight to the source, there’s room for error. This summer, Genius got the lyrics for “No Mediocre,” a song by hip-hop artist T.I., that features Iggy Azalea. They came directly from Azalea's label, but she later tweeted that they were full of mistakes.

Sometimes fans don't even believe the artists themselves. Danny Brown, a rapper from Detroit, has lyrics that are particularly prone to misinterpretation because of his wildly stylized vocals. Brown came in to the Genius office in Brooklyn himself to correct all of his lyrics.

But a few days later, Setaro says with a laugh, “his fans had put them back to what the original mishearings were. It was actually as a result of that that we built in a function to lock the pages, so once the artists say, ‘Hey, this is the right way,’ no one can change it.”

Some artists may scoff, some may shrug, and others might simply decide to embrace Lady Mondegreen. Many people claim that Jimi Hendrix even started singing “'Scuse me while I kiss this guy” for real once he found out people thought those were the words. You can judge for yourself in the version below, recorded at the 1967 Monterey Pop festival.

And according to linguists, that’s actually closer to what we’re expecting him to say, anyway. So go on, Jimi — kiss him.

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