The perfect mondegreen storm
Almost any song could inspire a mondegreen, but some offer much more potential than others. The Cutter by Echo and the Bunnymen is surely the perfect storm when it comes to mondegreens.
The lyrics make no sense at all. There’s a surreal quality to the song which defies comprehension and the singer, Ian McCulloch, is a Liverpudlian with a strong accent and poor enunciation.
Mondegreens and psychological discomfort
There’s no doubt that mondegreens reinforce your belief that what you think you have heard is correct. Once your mind has settled on alternative lyrics, that is all you ever hear, even when you know what the lyrics really are.
Some psychologists suggest that this is because our minds inevitably settle on words that we are comfortable with, understand or want to hear. Although I can’t imagine why I wanted to hear the word Sellotape!
Many experts also feel that mondegreens are our subconscious attempts to make sense of the implausible. The trouble with that theory is that mondegreens are often less plausible than the original lyrics, witness “cudden cudder muster”!
Mondegreens and language
The majority of mondegreens are the result of people mishearing lyrics sung in their own language. Such errors become almost inevitable if you are listening to a song sung in a foreign language, especially when you don’t speak it! Your ears and little grey cells work hard to decipher the words. But often interpret these as words that you already know rather than what is actually being sung.
For years, I was completely convinced that Josh Groban’s beautiful “Gira Con Me”, which is sung in Italian, extolled the virtues of Limoncello. The lyric is actually “ci sono strade azzurre nel cielo” which means “there are blue roads in the sky”. What a shame. I rather liked the idea of a song about a delicious drink.
When mondegreens become the official lyrics
From time to time, a mondegreen is repeated so often that it eventually replaces the original lyrics of a song. The traditional ditty “The Twelve Days of Christmas” originally featured the line “four colly birds”. The word colly means to render something black but is somewhat obscure and rarely used. Perhaps that is why the line had become “four calling birds” by 1909 and that is the version of the song which is still used today.
It would appear that we are so determined to make sense of lyrics and dialogue that our minds summon mondegreens even when what we are hearing is supposed to be gobbledygook. Take the infamous case of McDonald’s cursing Minions. In 2015, McDonalds featured Minion toys in their happy meals to celebrate the release of the Minions movie. Many parents complained that the talking toys were using offensive language! They weren’t, of course!
It would be interesting to hear what psychologists make of this amusing series of mondegreens.
The darker side of mondegreens
Any recording of music or speech could be misheard. The resulting mondegreens are usually amusing and completely harmless. However, sometimes a misinterpretation of recorded speech can have dire consequences.
Covert recordings are often used as evidence in criminal trials. These can be of very poor quality. When it is difficult to understand what is being said, transcripts are made for the benefit of the court. But if the sound quality is so poor, it raises the possibility of inaccurate transcripts. Juries could be told that a defendant has said something incriminating when they haven’t.