My Life in Mondegreens

Have you ever listened to a song and thought, “Get out of my head! From your lips to my heart, pop starlet,” because the words spoke directly to your experience, expressing emotional truths in an extraordinary example of limbic resonance? That happens to me approximately once a week. But most of the time, what I think I understood turns out to be completely wrong.

Everyone mishears lyrics, whether you’re talking about “a whale in a box or a bag” in Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter” or the Starbucks lovers of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space.” The world overflows with mondegreens: words or phrases that arise out of a mishearing of something said or sung. The word “mondegreen” is itself a mishearing of “laid him on the green” (from “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray,” a Scottish ballad) as “Lady Mondegreen.” Wikipedia, the fount of all Internet knowledge, says, “American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in her essay ‘The Death of Lady Mondegreen,’ published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1954.”

Yet I sometimes harbor the sneaking suspicion that I mishear and misinterpret what people sing (or say) more than the average person does. My husband, whose first language is not English, has corrected me on multiple occasions when I sing along to the radio. For instance, I assumed for years that the words to the chorus of the KT Turnstall song “Suddenly I See” were “Oh, VIC, VIC.”  Nonsensical acronyms are exactly what make a song soar to the top of the charts … right?  Similarly,  I once told my husband, “Only Coldplay could make a song about parasites popular.” When he saw that I was serious, he showed me the music video for “Paradise” as proof that Coldplay had not, in fact, accomplished this feat.

Or take “Mr. Brightside” by The Killers, which held an esoteric, particular, and deeply personal meaning for me that evaporated once I learned the real lyrics.

What I Thought Were the Lyrics to the Chorus of “Mr. Brightside”

Jo-o-sie, turning saints into the sea (I wondered why the singer had chosen the name Josie. Josephine had never struck me as a particularly romantic name. Was there a real-life counterpart to the woman in the song?)

Singing music lullabies (That had long struck me as oddly repetitive. Rich irony at work on the part of The Killers?)

Choking on your alibis

But it’s just the price I pay

Destiny is calling me

Open up your email eyes (This line always simultaneously confused and intrigued me. What did it mean? Was it a commentary on our modern society, in which evolving technology made it easier than ever to be unfaithful to partners or find new love interests? Were The Killers playing with the idea of opening your eyes to new truths or misconceptions via the unlikely vehicle of email?)

‘Cause I’m Mr. Brightside

Actual Lyrics to the Chorus of “Mr. Brightside”

Jealousy, turning saints into the sea
Swimming through sick lullabies
Choking on your alibis
But it’s just the price I pay
Destiny is calling me
Open up my eager eyes
‘Cause I’m Mr. Brightside

Waves of disappointment and loss washed over me when I realized that the messages I thought I had teased out from the song—tugging on threads of meaning with the focused reflection  of an aspiring literary scholar—had proven illusory. Sometimes I still sing “Open up your email eyes” when I’m washing dishes or folding laundry. Not out of defiance. For fun.

On a quiet evening at home recently, I was playing a simple arrangement of “Edelweiss” from The Sound of Music on the piano. “Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow,” I sang. I lingered on the line, remembering a mondegreen of days past. Laughing, I sang, “Blossom of snowmay, you bloom and grow.” Turning toward my husband, I confided that until I was well into my twenties, I believed that “snowmay” was an alternative name for “edelweiss.” What a lovely-sounding flower, I had thought. I hope to see a snowmay someday.

My husband, deeply absorbed in his game of Borderlands 2, didn’t appear to register my words.

“Not to complain,” I said, “but…”

“I heard you! I was listening!” he said as a shimmering purple explosion crowded out the characters on his computer screen. “You were talking about Blue Man Group.”

“No! False!” I said. But I couldn’t help but laugh. He had misheard me. Usually I was the one guilty of that.

How about you? Have you ever misheard the lyrics to a song? If so, share your version of the lyrics in the comments below!

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Anonymous says:

    This is such an interesting post, Hana! I had no idea there was a term for these mishearings, but I too have always felt that I’ve had some kind of inclination toward this phenomena. Sometimes I’ll even make up words and still think that it is somehow correct! It can be so strange how one’s interpretation of a misheard work can be so hard to change after reinforcing these mishearings for so long. I can totally relate to the disappointment you experienced after subscribing mentally and emotionally to your own interpretation.