Tag Archives: mondegreen


There was a time, I remember, in the 1990s, when it was considered deep and true and honest for singers of popular songs to sing with a certain… “style,” what one might think of as “poor voice placement” and a lack of what one might call, um, “tuning.” A sort of strained half-shriek, half-grunt one might hear from someone with a cold and dysentery who is sitting in an outhouse and has just seen a hornet headed straight for him. It was not eccentric, not exactly; that would mean they were off-centre, and as far as this goes that’s beside the point, because if the fashion is to be unfashionable, well…

Anyway, as I worked away in the mail room at the Tufts library to pay some bills while I was dissertating, I would have the radio on, and the local station would play stuff by, you know, Porno For Pyros and Bush and Jane’s Addiction and The Wallflowers and so on, and there was no lack of this style. And then I heard a song use a word that seemed like the mot juiced for this whole thing, this, um, kind of rough and underripe vocal styling paired with expensive studio production values that were pretending not to be expensive (like high-priced fake craquelure). The song introduced the word but didn’t explain it, just threw it down there, which was also so damn typical of these uber-cool guys who were trying so hard to be hip it was tragic, and were so tragic it was hip. (To be fair, the singer of the song in question was actually able to sing well when he chose to, which at key moments he did not.)

The etymology of the word was not completely obvious. The second part was clear enough: centric. But the first part? It sounded like “heb-I” or “heb-eye” but I assumed it was spelled hebi. The thing is, there’s no classical root that matches that. But there is a Greek root hebe-, referring to youth; perhaps it was blended with bi, meaning ‘two’ (as in the duality of expensive production values and good instrumentals with a singing style that I had always known as “bad”). Or maybe they were just being deliberately obscure and difficult. Like, hey, I just mutated this word, isn’t it so awful you have to love it and buy it. But there was no doubt that the song was about someone who embodied this value, because they sang it over and over again: “You are a hebicentric! You are a hebicentric!”

I suppose if I had already been studying linguistics at the time (I was still a drama scholar) I might have decided that it was deliberately incomprehensible, like the famous sentence confected by Noam Chomsky to illustrate that a sentence could be syntactically coherent but semantically incoherent, “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” After all, the whole line I heard sung was “That’s when the hornet stung meeee, and I had this furious dream! You are a hebicentric! You are a hebicentric!”

In the end, though, I realized that I had created a mondegreen (but one every bit as plausible as classiomatic, I’d say). What I was actually hearing, which even contained the title of the song (not that radio deejays ever bothered saying the titles of the songs), was “You are ahead by a century.” (Also, the words before it were “feverish dream” and later “serious dream” but never “furious dream,” alas.) But I still think hebicentric is a good word for that hiply tragic, tragically hip style…

Anyway, here, if you don’t know the song. It’s “Ahead by a Century” by The Tragically Hip, from 1996.


There are words we learn from songs; they rise out of the music and appear in our ears. Sometimes they’re completely new words to us, words we have to figure out from context. Boogaloo in “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy” was one such for me. Sometimes they’re words that are so reasonable in form we may not realize we haven’t heard them before. The Beatles were good for that for me: I easily accepted Blackburn, Lancashire in “A Day in the Life” even if I didn’t know its exact location, and hogshead in “For the Benefit of Mister Kite” even if I didn’t have an exact mental image of one.

And sometimes they’re not actually real words at all. There are no naspritus trees in Tripoli; no one is going, now or at any other time, into a Classiomatic. Welcome to the wide world of mondegreens, misheard words that lie in wait in lyrics and seize and drag away your mind as a leopard seizes and drags away a hare.

Music is an especially fertile field for mishearing because it interferes with our usual way of identifying sounds. We recognize vowels and consonants by the resonances they create in our mouths. Every sound that comes from our larynx has not just its base frequency (its pitch, in musical terms) but a number of harmonics above it (resonances that are some multiple of the base frequency), and the ones that come out the strongest are the ones that echo at just the right frequency for the size of the cavity they’re resonating in. Your tongue, as it constricts the air flow to make speech sounds, makes an angle that creates two resonating chambers, one at the back and one towards the lips, and the smaller each chamber is, the higher the resonances that dominate. The one towards the lips is also smaller than the one at the back, so you have two sets of resonances that can be variously closer together or farther apart, and their relation tells us what sound we’re hearing. There are some other, even higher sets of resonance that also come into play, but they mainly help us hear things like the difference between a vowel with a retroflex /r/ and one without it, or a vowel that’s nasalized (representing a following /m/, for instance) and one that’s not. Those sets of resonances are higher and not as strong as the main two sets. You can read and hear lots more about all that if you want.

Anyway, the thing is that singing can interfere with all that at least a little, and distract from it too, and the instruments accompanying the voice can add to the confusion, and the lyrics are very often not the kinds of strings of words we usually heard, and they’re not said with the usual speech rhythms. So I can listen to “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood and think I’m hearing “Hit me with those lettuce and beans” when it’s actually “Hit me with those laser beams.” Why “lettuce and beans”? I dunno, man, I assumed it was some Cockney rhyming slang.

And that’s the thing: we do a lot of our language learning by abduction. I don’t mean by kidnapping; I mean by observing an instance (or what we take to be an instance) and inferring a rule on the basis of it. It’s the reverse of deduction, which is where we know the rule and work out the instance. It’s backfill: we make a decision and create assumptions to justify it.

Remember, too, that we don’t hear words as discrete items in our sound stream. We have to work out where the divides are. And we don’t always work them out right. That’s how a norange and a nadder became an orange and an adder, but that’s a whole nother thing.

But today I’m talking about a lepress. And Africa.

You know “Africa,” right? The ’80s hit by Toto? I’ve always liked that song, and I can sing you all the words. It has a few slightly overworked images, true, but the music is so nice. One line that has always seemed just a little pushed for me is “I know that I must do what’s right, sure as Kilimanjaro rises like a lepress above the Serengeti”:

Rises like a lepress? I guess that means it sits like a female leopard, soft, dappled, muscular, ready to take whatever it wants to have. I never spent much time thinking about it.

If I had, I might have thought, “Wait, a lepress isn’t to a leopard as a lioness is to a lion. That’s not quite the right derivation. Leopard comes from leo, a root we all know refers to lions, and pard, which is from a Greek word for panthers. There’s no basis for deleting the last d. That should be leopardess.” Which in fact is true. A female leopard is a leopardess, if you insist on using diœcious terminology that treats the masculine as the default and the feminine as the marked.

But he’s clearly not singing leopardess. I mean, singers can mispronounce things – heck, Tom Cochrane sang Somalian as “soma-lion” in “White Hot” – but there sure ain’t no [d] in there. So what’s a lepress? Could it be formed from leporine? Isn’t that the adjective for leopards?

No, it’s not. It’s the adjective for hares. If lepress were formed from leporine, there would be a great big lady Bugs Bunny rising above the Serengeti. (Bugs Bunny may be called a rabbit but is obviously – by body shape, ear length, etc. – a hare. They’re not the same thing.)

Of course, following the model of seamster and seamstress, or mister and mistress, or matter and mattress, a lepress is a female leper. (OK, lay off, I was only joking about mattress.) And this is true: the dictionary entry for lepress – if your dictionary has one, as the Oxford English Dictionary does – tells you first that no one uses it anymore, and second that when they did it meant a female leper. As in a girl or woman affected with leprosy.

There is exactly no reason for a lepress to be rising above the Serengeti in that song.

I’ve been mishearing and misconstruing it for years. And by “for years,” I mean the whole time between when it came out in September 1982 and today, December 10, 2017. I only found out because I’m not the only one who was hearing lepress, and one of the others commented on Twitter about it: https://twitter.com/jamesfraleigh/status/939900206635773953

If you don’t feel like clicking, I’ll tell you: the real words are “sure as Kilimajaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.”

That makes more sense than a lepress, doesn’t it?

Sure, but why would I think Olympus? I mean, it’s just, you know, a byword for a high, noble mountain. But not one in Africa per se, right? Look, we just heard “The wild dogs cry out in the night as they grow restless longing for some solitary company,” so my mind’s on animals. And leopards have a greater affinity in my mind to Kilimanjaro than some Greek mountain does. And it’s not like I see the word Olympus all the time. Well, OK, I literally carry a camera made by Olympus in my pocket every day, but, uh, I didn’t in 1982, or for years after.

It’s those higher resonances. I just wasn’t getting them right. I mean the resonances of the lofty idealized mountain of Greek gods, yeah, but also the ones that would have told me that I was hearing a nasalized vowel before the /p/ and not an /r/ after it. Remember how I mentioned that those higher resonances are more easily drowned out?

What was drowning them out? I dunno, man, the wild dogs crying out in the night, maybe? All I can say is that once something like that gets set into my head, it’s gonna take a lot to take me away from it.


Ewan Dye leans at the gate, awaiting, idly singing a childhood song: “Ferrazhocka, ferrazhocka, donlayvoo, donlayvoo, semilematina, semilematina, ding-dong-dang, ding-dong-dang…”

In the distance he sees a glint, and hears, out on the tar plane, a glide moving. The glint grows, singing blue silver. A Classiomatic draws into dim sight. The droning engine throbs in time with his beating heart. Ewan Dye stands straight, pulls his tie. The machine pulls up and stops in front of him. In the pre-dawn glow, out steps Lady Mondegreen.

They know each other, these two. They have known each other for many years, since before she wed the Earl Amore. Ewan tends her crops, her wild crops, her changelings. This is a special corner of word country, where all the fruit is mutation. But not mutation as happens to other things, on their own. These words come to being because someone has oddly heard some other word or words and taken it for a new word. These words are fertilized by the mind, and when they are made into prose they are leavened by local wind-blown yeast, purely adventitiously. The rimes here are all lambic pentameter.

He extends his hand and addresses her as he had when she was young: “Miss Heard.”

He is too familiar, but she accepts it. “Ewan Dye,” she says. “Just the two of us.” And a small up-curve graces the corner of her mouth. “What have you for me today, in a gadda da vida?”

Gracias a la vida, he thinks. But he says, “Something… light. You have had a taste already.”

“Something… northerly?”

“Something mannerly, masterly, not miserly. Perhaps orderly, perhaps motherly, perhaps summerly.”

She nods slightly. “I hope… not soberly.”

Intoxicating, he thinks. “As graceful as a Lippizaner, as powerful as a panzer. As luscious as a Linzertorte. But so wide open to interpretation. Everyone who hears it has their own idea about it. It’s not supposed to be there, it is a ghost made of two souls. Even more than most words, it exists in the minds of those who hear it. Until someone turns on the light and they see it no more.”

“These are the words I love to hear,” Lady Mondegreen says.

“These are the words I cultivate for you. Miss Heard.” He looks again. Their eyes lock.

“Oh, say it,” she says.

He looks to the horizon. “Can you see it?”

In a flash of light, like a rocket’s red glare, the sun crests the curve. She whispers in his ear, “The donzerly light.”

“Only here, my lady,” he says. “Only in your own land.”

“Only where my own heards graze.” She looks to the horizon. “Squeeze me,” she says quietly, “while I kiss the sky.”

He nuzzles her eagerly. She clasps his left hand in her right, sets her left on his back. They start to dance. She sings softly, slowly, a jaunty old favourite: “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and little lamzy divey…”


It was cleaning-up time after yet another lively word tasting at Domus Logogustationis, and our own especially lively word taster, Elisa Lively, was in the kitchen doing the wash-up while a few of the rest of us gathered dishes and brought them in.

I came in with a stack of bowls, set them down next to the sink. Elisa was sudsed up the elbows and singing Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” happily:

“Slow-motion Walter, the fire engine guy…”

I choked back a guffaw, pretended it was a cough, and headed back out. (The real words are “Smoke on the water and fire in the sky.”) Presently I returned with a stack of plates. She had switched to Abba:

“See that girl, watch her scream, kicking the dancing queen…”

I paused for a split second, goggled, set the plates and retreated. (The original words are “See that girl, watch that scene, dig in the dancing queen.”) I gathered an assortment of wine glasses, including my own nearly empty one, shouldered the swinging kitchen door open and headed back in. Just as I was tossing back the last of my Zinfandel, I clicked in to her rendition of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love”:

“You might as well face it, you’re a dick with a glove.”

I did what in the comedy business is known as a spit take. That is to say, I sprayed my Zinfandel across the tile floor and commenced coughing. I barely managed to set the glasses down without demolishing them.

Elisa turned, solicitous. She reached for a jug on the counter and poured me a glass. And with it she started in on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”:

“You need Kool-Aid, baby I’m not fooling…”

I held up my hand and coughed and gasped and finally managed to swallow a bit of the Kool-Aid. “Good grief,” I said, “were you tasting mondegreen tonight?”

“Mondegreen?” Elisa said, fetching a mop. “No, I stuck with the Kool-Aid.”

“No, I mean the word. Mondegreen. I’ll take that as a no.”

“I don’t think I’ve heard it,” Elisa said. “It sounds kind of like a cheese. Or maybe a country – no, that’s Montenegro. Is it related to verdigris?”

“Not even to a fair degree,” I said. “It comes from a mishearing by the writer Sylvia Wright. When she was a kid, she enjoyed hearing her mother read from Percy’s Reliques, and the first stanza, by her hearing, ended ‘The hae slain the Earl Amurray / And Lady Mondegreen.’ But actually it was ‘the Earl O’ Moray / And laid him on the green.’ So in 1954 Wright published an article in Harper’s in which she gave such mishearings the name mondegreens.”

“Oh!” said Elisa. “Like when I was a kid and I sang in church about ‘gladly the cross-eyed bear’ – and every Christmas I’d sing ‘Good tidings we bring to you and your thing.'”

“Exactly,” I said. “Mishearings, typically funny, of song lyrics. Often they’re actually less plausible than the real lyrics. I don’t remember making any really funny mistakes, but I remember hearing Boney M’s ‘Rasputin’ and thinking the line ‘Russia’s greatest love machine’ was ‘Rickashane a slokashi,’ some kind of imitation Russian. It really says something about the human brain, the things we’ll fill in when we can’t quite make out the words. Sort of like the weird things we see in the dark – why would we think what we’re seeing is a house plant when it could so easily be a four-foot spider?”

“Well, Mondegreen does sound like a reasonable name,” Elisa said. “It has two recognizable parts, with the monde like from French for ‘world’. It’s like some… relic from a green world!”

“Or from the salad days of the listener, when she was green in judgement. We do have lots of words with m and nd, like mandate, mend, mind, Monday, mundungus…”

“Green Monday,” Elisa said. “Isn’t Mundungus just a name from Harry Potter?”

“Also a word for bad tobacco. Green mundungus would really be nasty, I’m sure.”

“Mondo bizarro,” Elisa said, possibly agreeing. “But speaking of salad… there’s some you could help put away.” She opened a cupboard to reveal a bunch of plastic containers suited for the task, and sang out, as from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Here we are now, in containers.” (It’s really “Here we are now, entertain us.”)

I smiled. As I started scooping some Waldorf salad into one of the containers, I started in a version of Toto’s “Africa” (the refrain of which really goes “Gonna take a lot to take me away from you / There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do / I bless the rains down in Africa…”): “Gonna take a lot to take me away from food…”

Elisa added the next line: “There’s nothing that a hundred men on Mars could ever do.”

We sang together, her washing, me scooping: “I left my brains down in Africa…”

Thanks to Allan Jackson for suggesting – a while ago – mondegreen, and to www.kissthisguy.com for most of the mishearings used above.