Wanda, help me get the owls out of my bed


I am sure that all of us have misheard the lyrics of songs. My own favorite is the beginning of the Beach Boys song Help me Rhonda where I thought it sounded like they sang, “Well, since you put me down, there’ve been owls sleeping in my bed”. Of course, this was preposterous but that’s what it sounded like. (In my defense, the actual words are supposed to be “Well, since she put me down I ‘ve been out doin’ in my head” which does not make much more sense. For the longest time I also thought they were appealing to Wanda.) Each of us can give many examples of getting phrases or song words wrong.

Maria Konnikova informs me that this phenomenon where what you think makes sense but is entirely incorrect actually has a name and is called the ‘mondegreen effect’.

In November, 1954, Sylvia Wright, an American writer, published a piece in Harper’s where she admitted to a gross childhood mishearing. When she was young, her mother would read to her from the “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry,” a 1765 book of popular poems and ballads. Her favorite verse began with the lines, “Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands / Oh, where hae ye been? / They hae slain the Earl Amurray, / And Lady Mondegreen.” Except they hadn’t. They left the poor Earl and “laid him on the green.” He was, alas, all by himself.

So what is going on here? Why is it so easy to mishear the spoken word?

Hearing is a two-step process. First, there is the auditory perception itself: the physics of sound waves making their way through your ear and into the auditory cortex of your brain. And then there is the meaning-making: the part where your brain takes the noise and imbues it with significance.
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Human speech occurs without breaks: when one word ends and another begins, we don’t actually pause to signal the transition. When you listen to a recording of a language that you don’t speak, you hear a continuous stream of sounds that is more a warbling than a string of discernable words. We only learn when one word stops and the next one starts over time, by virtue of certain verbal cues—for instance, different languages have different general principles of inflection (the rise and fall of a voice within a word or a sentence) and syllabification (the stress patterns of syllables)—combined with actual semantic knowledge.
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A common cause of mondegreens, in particular, is the oronym: word strings in which the sounds can be logically divided multiple ways. One version that Pinker describes goes like this: Eugene O’Neill won a Pullet Surprise. The string of phonetic sounds can be plausibly broken up in multiple ways—and if you’re not familiar with the requisite proper noun, you may find yourself making an error. In similar fashion, Bohemian Rhapsody becomes Bohemian Rap City. Children might wonder why Olive, the other reindeer, was so mean to Rudolph. And a foreigner might become confused as to why, in this country, we entrust weather reports to meaty urologists or why so many people are black-toast intolerant. Oronyms result in not so much a mangling as an incorrect parsing of sounds when context or prior knowledge is lacking.
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What usually prevents us from being tripped up by phonetics is the context and our own knowledge. When we hear a word or phrase, our brain’s first cue is the actual sounds, in the order in which they are produced. According to the cohort model—one of the leading theories of auditory word processing—when we hear sounds, a number of related words are activated all at once in our heads, words that either sound the same or have component parts that are the same. Our brain then chooses the one that makes the most sense.

The problem becomes more acute when we cannot see the person speaking and so are entirely dependent on verbal cues.

Konnikova says that given the complexity of all the factors that play a role in enabling us to make sense of what we hear, and the many ways in which we can be misled, it is surprising that we are not wrong more often.

Mondegreens are funny, of course, but they also give us insight into the underlying nature of linguistic processing and how our minds make meaning out of sound. In fractions of seconds, we translate a boundless blur of sound into sense. It comes naturally, easily, effortlessly. We sift through sounds, activate and reject countless alternatives, and select one single meaning out of myriad homonyms, near-matches, and possible parsings—even though speakers may have different accents, pronunciations, intonations, or inflections. And, in the overwhelming majority of instances, we get it right.

Stand up comedian Peter Kay has created a whole routine out of misheard song lyrics. Note how he takes advantage of the fact that how his lips move strongly influences what we think we hear. And once we have formed our own impression of what the words are, each rehearing seems to cement that error more strongly in our brains.

Comments

  1. says

    Here’s a “mondegreen” that makes more sense than the actual words. These are the horrendous lyrics to the horrendous song “Sister Golden Hair” by the horrendous group America:

    Will you meet me in the middle, will you meet me in the air?
    Will you love me just a little, just enough to show you care?

    What I thought I was hearing/enduring:

    Will you meet me in the middle, will you meet me in the end?
    Will you love me just a little, just enough to show you can?

  2. estraven says

    I love mondegreens! I collect them. Yours is epic! My favorite personally misheard lyric turns out to be quite common. It’s from the Rascals’ song “Groovin”. In the line “Life would be ecstasy, you and me endlessly,” I always heard it as “you and me and Leslie,” which irritated me to no end, as Leslie up to that point had not appeared in the song and I wondered just who in the heck Leslie was. You should definitely look up “eggcorns” as well. My students were champs at those.

    Of course one of the most famous is from the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” in which many person has heard, instead of “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes,” “the girl with colitis goes by.”

  3. estraven says

    Oh gosh, leftover, I saw America in concert back in the day. My sister was with me and very pregnant, and there was so much marijuana in the air I had to take her outside so she could breathe freely. I never misheard the words, though (even the contact high didn’t get me, I guess!).

  4. estraven says

    One of my Facebook friends recently wrote that his son misheard the Psychedelic Furs’ lyrics “All That Money Wants” as “I’ve got morning wood”!

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    I don’t know much of America’s oeuvre, but I still love “Ventura Highway”.

    Pink Floyd’s lyric to Us and Them;

    ‘Haven’t you heard it’s a battle of words’
    The poster bearer cried.

    For many years, I heard this as

    ‘Haven’t you heard it’s a battle of words’
    And most of them are lies.

    I still prefer mine.

    A funny ‘misheard’ version of the beautiful Welsh lullaby Suo Gân (probably best known from Empire of the Sun).

  6. Bruce says

    My favorite mishearing is from the Beach Boys also, but from “Catch a Wave”.
    The real lyrics start like this:

    Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world
    Don’t be afraid to try the greatest sport around
    Everybody tries it once
    Those who don’t just have to put it down
    You paddle out turn around and raise
    And baby that’s all there is to the coastline craze …

    But as someone with a math/science interest, I heard the last bit as:
    The cosine craze …

    I was surprised that the Beach Boys liked trigonometry.

  7. busterggi says

    The errors generally seem much more entertaining than the originals. Maybe that’s why song parodies are so popular.

  8. DonDueed says

    Here’s a seasonal one. As a kid I heard the lyric to “Jingle Bells” as:

    Oh what fun it is to ride
    In a one horse ope and sleigh.

    I didn’t know what an ope was; I just assumed it was part of the bridle or some other horsey thing I didn’t know about, having grown up around cars rather than livestock.

    Another famous one is from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”:
    ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy.”

  9. DonDueed says

    By the way, I think I’ve decoded that original line from “Help me Rhonda”. It can be paraphrased as, “Since you dumped me I’ve been going out and getting plastered every night.”

    The key is the “doin’ in my head” part. It’s “doing in” as in killing or damaging, so the phrase means “destroying my brain”.

  10. machintelligence says

    From a popular Christmas carol:
    Peace on earth and nurses wild,
    God and sinners wrecked and siled.
    (Mommy what is siled? I know what wrecked is.)

  11. Katydid says

    Leftover, are you me? I always thought those were the lyrics, too, and they make more sense than the actual lyrics.

    There’s an England Dan/John Ford Coley song that goes, “I’m not talkin’ ’bout movin’ in, and I don’t wanna change your life”. The spouse always thought the lyrics were, “I’m not talkin’ ’bout Millenium” (man, that’s one long commitment!)

  12. brucegee1962 says

    For me, the Eurothmyics’ “Sweet Dreams are Made of This” was always “These jeans are made of steel.”

  13. grasshopper says

    “Our Father who art in Heaven,
    Harold be thy name.”

    Not an original, but it has stuck with me since I first heard somebody say it in Primary school.

  14. leni says

    Harold be thy name.

    I can’t stop laughing.

    Now if Mano could just get a pet owl named Harold, I could die happy.

  15. questioningkat says

    Thanks all for the funny videos. I got a good laugh. I’m reminded of Dennett prompting an audience to hear “Oh sweet Satan” the second time he replayed a record backwards. It was hilarious and unexpected because the first time all the words were garbled.

  16. Michael Duchek says

    In Omnia’s ‘Wytches’ Brew’, I swear they’re singing:
    Round about the cauldron go,
    in the poisoned entrails throw
    Skin of toad and spike of bone,
    sharpened on an eagle stone
    Serpent’s egg and dancing dead,
    effigy of pizza,
    Double double trouble you,
    bubble in a witches’ brew

    It’s actually ‘effigy of beaten lead’, sung quickly. Pizza might be better.

  17. Matzo Ball Soup says

    One of my favourite buffalaxes (besides the O Fortuna one already posted above) is this one.

    The Suo Gân one was a new one on me, and I’m laughing SO HARD right now. (Like with the German one I posted, the striking thing is that the subtitles distract me so much that I can’t figure out what the actual words are, even though I know Welsh.)

    Earlier this year, I used to hear a clip from a particular Sheppard song all the time (maybe it was in a Spotify ad?) and it sounded like they were saying “Saint Geronimo! Saint Geronimo!”

  18. Jenny Ashford says

    This one might be a tad on the obscure side, but for years and years I heard a line in The Birthday Party’s “Jennifer’s Veil” as, “Get back, and get that wrench out of my room.” Which I didn’t think was that weird, as the song is kinda about a murder (I think), and I figured the wrench was the murder weapon or something. But when I read the actual lyrics, I discovered that the word wasn’t “wrench” at all; it was “lantern.” And I’m like, how the hell could I have misheard THAT? And for a long time afterwards, I still couldn’t hear “lantern.” It always sounded like “wrench” to me. But then, I heard it one day, and suddenly, BAM! I heard “lantern,” plain as day. I really have no idea what was going on with that.

  19. Mano Singham says

    Jenny,

    I think that the desire to have the words make sense overpowers other things. For example, how could I have mistaken ‘doing’ for ‘sleeping’? But once I had fixated on owls and bed, sleeping likely made the most sense to me and I stuck with it, like you with wrench.

  20. John Morales says

    When I was learning English (mostly by immersion) in my childhood, I at first heard “I don’t know” as “I no no”. So that’s what I said, too, though it sounded silly.

  21. fwtbc says

    I try and say goodbye and I choke
    try to walk away, and I stumble
    Though I try to hide it, it’s clear
    I blow bubbles when you are not here

  22. Ysidro says

    Aerosmith’s cover of “Train Kept A-Rollin'” had me thinking Tyler was singing “drank campari all night long.”

    I was confused. Campari isn’t really a hard drinkin’ kind of thing….

  23. rq says

    It wasn’t the wrong words, but I totally got the wrong meaning from the line ‘Oh, we like sheep’ in a church hymn.

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