Monday, February 26, 2001

Oh, beautiful, for spaceship guys …
The next line, of course, is “for amber waves of grain.”
It is, at least, for a large number of people who revel in lyrics which are misunderstood, misheard or garbled into something else all together.
Like that mighty tune which goes something like, “He is trampling out the vintage where the great giraffes are stored,” or the old Bob Dylan dirge, “The ants are my friends, they’re blowing in the wind.”
Nothing is immune to this phenomenon. Rock songs, hymns, patriotic tunes, Christmas carols the innocent human ear has lent them all comedic aberrations.
Among purists, these assorted audio boo-boos and bungles are called mondegreens.
The term was coined in the 1950s by Sylvia Wright, a journalist who realized she misinterpreted lyrics from an old Scottish folk song. Rather than “Oh, they have slain the Earl o’ Morray and laid him on the green,” she heard “Oh, they have slain the Earl o’ Morray and Lady Mondegreen.”
A star was born.
In the decades since, the study and cataloging of mondegreens has reached a high art, its popularity fed by the fact that most everyone has experienced, well, mondegreenhood at one point or another.
Sometimes they didn’t quite get the lyrics of a hymn or carol, sitting in church on their best behavior.
Or perhaps the fidelity of that old radio was not particularly up to par, or the lyrics themselves just too darn obtuse. Then again, the singing style itself might have been at fault.
Does anyone really know, for example, the true lyrics of “Louie, Louie,” a rock classic?
Dozens of Internet Web sites chart mondegreen culture. A virtual mother lode can be found at Charles Grosvenor’s spot (, which receives 40 or 50 new “misheard lyrics” from aficionados every day. The site contains close to 10,000 sets of weird interpretations, spanning four decades.
Mr. Grosvenor carefully distinguishes between true mondegreens and parody lyrics, which are also welcome at the site.
He also ranks those tunes which seem most subject to misinterpretation. In the rock world, at least, the current favorites include “Hotel California” and “Jack and Diane.”
The site is so busy that Mr. Grosvenor now offers a service that electronically delivers the latest entries to personal computers or palm devices on a daily basis.
“And no one is making this stuff up,” he noted.
It’s the same story over at Jessica Ross’ site (, named for an infamously misunderstood Jimi Hendrix lyric. In one psychedelic anthem, Mr. Hendrix wrote, “Excuse me, while I kiss the sky.”
Millions have heard it as, “Excuse me, while I kiss this guy.”
The site catalogs more than 1,000 mondegreens including country singer Crystal Gayle’s “Doughnuts make my brown eyes blue” and Elvis Presley’s “You ate nothing but a hound dog.”
There are some who have made the study of such things their life’s work.
Gavin Edwards has compiled four books of misheard lyrics, including “He’s Got the Whole World in His Pants” and “Deck the Halls with Buddy Holly.” The ultracool Eurythmics, the author writes, would be appalled to discover that their top 1984 hit included the line, “Sweet dreams are made of cheese.”
“Come out of the closet and proudly sing what you think you hear,” Mr. Edwards advised. He has also added a day-to-day calendar of mondegreens to his wares.
San Francisco Chronicle writer Jon Carroll, meanwhile, has written 14 columns on the subject, expanding the phenomenon beyond music and into daily life.
He swears that the official announcement at the city subway system goes something like, “All BART station alligators are in service at this time.”
The Pledge of Allegiance is also ripe for misinterpretation, particularly among those who solemnly recite, “And to the Republic for Richard Stans.”
The evening news, commercial announcements and parental admonitions are also fodder for mondegreens.
Mr. Carroll said he has heard from parents whose children beg for “paper view TV” or thought that a retirement home was really the “Tyrant Home.”
Politics is not immune, either.
“More than one person listened to the rolling homilies of ‘House Keeper Newt Gingrich’ before he resigned,” Mr. Carroll noted.

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