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Mondegreens: the ants are my friends, they’re blowing in the wind

My first jobs as a translator involved translating liner notes. Remember those? Slipped into CD cases, they carried artwork (think: Radiohead/Stanley Donwood collaboration), credits, thank yous (think: Nirvana’s plea on Incesticide) and above all lyrics.

Oh the joy of reading every line as Elliot Smith crooned out of the speakers, or translating the generic words of another up-and-coming Brit band looking to make it big in Japan. And then along came the digital age. Liner notes are the real casualty of the iPod, despite digital booklets and MetroLyrics, and I don’t care how old that makes me sound. And anecdotal evidence shows that its demise triggered a new era of a phenomenon, mondegreens.


Mondegreens are misheard lyrics – the term is derived from a mondegreen itself – and some people have a real talent for it. Back in primary school, a friend was ridiculed for turning Madonna’s Like a prayer into a song for trainspotters: “You’re here with me, it’s like a dream / Level crossing / When you call my name”. I didn’t tell anyone that I’d thought “Let the choir sing” was “Let the corn thing”. So this isn’t something new – after all, one of the most popular examples of a mondegreen is Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Sky: “Excuse me while I kiss this guy”, substituted for “Excuse me while I kiss the sky”. But when I thought Alainis Morrisette was singing “Of the cross-eyed bear that you gave to me” in You Oughta Know, I could simply check the liner notes and read “Of the cross I bear that you gave to me” and quietly think to myself, I suppose that makes more sense. I can’t do that with the new Björk album I recently downloaded, nor the Roots album streaming on Spotify.

Butt naked

There is a linguistic explanation to mondegreens, and there are opinions about liner notes versus digital databases. But at the end of the day, misheard lyrics are just funny. My kids crack one every day. The Frozen soundtrack is a great source – when I heard “I mean, it’s crazy / we finish each other’s – sandwiches!” I thought I would die laughing. And after hearing “I’m all about that bass, ’bout that bass, McTrouble”, you’ll see golden arches every time you hear that song. Rhianna will be relieved to know that it’s not a monster, but mustard under her bed, Lorde isn’t queen bee but green bean, and Pharrell isn’t talking about the legend of the Phoenix, but quite possibly his own penis.

Check out this video for a mondegreen medley and feel free to add your own in the comments. After all, we could all do with a laugh.

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