NaBloPoMo Day 2!
It’s an enduring cultural phenomenon — a rite of passage, even. If you’ve ever been a) a teenager or 2) a middle-aged relative of a teenager, you’re probably familiar with some version of the following interpersonal transaction (if you’re lucky, you’ve been on both sides of it!):
“Turn down that cat-alley moaning! You call that music?”
“I like it! It’s cool!”
“But you can’t even understand the words!”
That’s the idea! 😛
We might have the impression, based on this exchange, that it’s only in that crazy noise that the kids are listening to these days that the words are hard to understand. Not so fast! Opera and classical choral music provide us with plenty of opportunities to be completely in the dark about what we’re hearing, especially when you factor in the multiple languages represented in the repertoire.
Case in point: here’s a video my friend Andy sent me, that made me laugh til I cried!
In addition to almost spewing coffee all over my keyboard, I marveled anew at the human cognitive ability to
make stuff up fill in the gaps when things are unclear. A mind is a terrible thing! 😛
There’s a name for these lyrical assumptions, including Richard Stans, and other colorful characters!
The writer Sylvia Wright coined the term “mondegreen” to refer to misheard lyrics, citing a poem her mother read to her as a child:
Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands
Oh where hae you been?
They hae slay the Earl of Murray,
And Lady Mondegreen.
That last line should really read: “And laid him on the green,” but young Sylvia was quite taken with the idea of — as San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll puts it — “a tragic heroine dying with her liege.”  Carroll has collected his many mondegreen-related columns here for your enjoyment.
The consensus among mondegreen experts seems to be that the number one example, in terms of popularity/familiarity, is “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear,” a mis-hearing of “Gladly the cross I’ll bear” from the hymn, “Keep Thou My Way, O Lord.” Maybe so, but personally, I can never discuss the subject without having flashbacks to the confusion I felt as a young girl whenever the song “Blinded by the Light” came on the radio. (I know what you’re thinking — I don’t look old enough to remember that song on the radio. Just keep in mind, I have older siblings. And I was a child prodigy. Okay, I heard it in utero. Moving on! 😛 ) Not that feminine hygiene products are anything to be ashamed of, but I could never understand what they had to do with the mumps, merry-go-rounds and weather charts, or why a guy wearing dark glasses and a beard insisted on singing about them over and over and over again! Oh, and p.s: just a little note to the original lyricist, who nowadays needs no introduction (let alone any input from little old me): a little internal rhyme goes a long way, dig? 😛
So who’s to blame for this whole lyric-comprehensibility issue anyway, which, to be honest, probably leaves the listener in the dark more often than it provides the kind of comic relief we’ve seen thus far? Well, it’s easy to blame singers for a lot of things, and it’s true that most singers (not to mention speakers) could stand to enunciate more clearly and carefully most of the time.
However, there are actually technical considerations that sometimes put making the best vocal sound at odds with getting the words across clearly. Certain vowel sounds are easier to sing within certain pitch ranges, for actual scientific reasons that I will leave it to actual scientists to explain. (Hey, I know my limits, and I’m perfectly secure about it, okay? 😉 )
Bottom line: I now have one more item to add to my list of things I wish I could get paid to do — because if I could get a job making videos like the one we started with here today, I’d be happier ‘n a pig in a peach orchard! 😀
I’ll leave you with two things you probably never thought belonged next to each other: first, a little trip down my memory lane…
And last but not least, a link to the real text that you heard at the beginning, along with its English translation — here’s a little taste:
O Fortune, like the moon of ever changing state, you are always waxing or waning; hateful life now is brutal, now pampers our feelings with its game; poverty, power, it melts them like ice.
Hmm, I think I agree with Sylvia Wright: “The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.”  🙂
Look, Mom! I can do footnotes! Click ’em and they go back and forth!
 Jon Carroll, “Mondegreens Ripped My Flesh,” San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.sfgate.com/columnists/carroll/mondegreens.shtml.
 Sylvia Wright, “The Death of Lady Mondegreen,” Harper’s Magazine 209 (November 1954): 48–51.
If you enjoyed this post, would you consider…
Thanks — you make the world a better place! 🙂