Listen close! Your ears are playing tricks on you…

I enjoy writing posts about optical illusions because they’re puzzles that engage a solver in very different ways than normal pen-and-paper puzzles do. They rely on perspective trickery, playing on assumptions made by the brain on a level we rarely consider, often causing us to disregard what’s right in front of us.

[Those white circles are the same size…]

But there’s an audio version of this phenomenon as well, the mondegreen.

Mondegreens are misheard lyrics or phrases where homophones or soundalike words get substituted for the actual words. There are a few truly famous ones, like “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” instead of “Excuse me while I kiss the sky” from Jimi Hendrix’s song Purple Haze, or “The girl with colitis goes by” instead of “The girl with kaleidoscope eyes” from The Beatles’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

Now, mondegreens aren’t to be confused with malaprops, which are quite similar. Malaprops are words or phrases mistakenly used when another is intended. Archie Bunker from TV’s All in the Family, for instance, was a master of malaprops, unintentionally garbling the English language with classics like “Buy one of them battery operated transvestite radios.”

The term mondegreen comes from writer Sarah Wright, who misheard the last line of a stanza from a ballad called “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray.”

[Castle Doune, where the Earl o’ Moray resided…]

The actual stanza reads:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And laid him on the green.

But Sarah heard:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

My personal favorite mondegreen emerged from a viewing of Star Wars: A New Hope with a friend. In the famous scene where Obi-Wan Kenobi senses the destruction of the planet Alderaan, he utters the words “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.”

My friend leaned over to me and whispered, “I’ve always wanted to ask someone this. Why oysters?”

Now, both my friend and I had seen the movie countless times before. We know the original trilogy backwards and forwards. So you can understand how completely baffling I found his question.

“What did you just say?”

“Why oysters?” He paused. “Millions of oysters cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.”

I figured he was pulling my leg. With dozens of viewings of the film between us, he couldn’t possibly believe Obi-Wan had been saying “oysters” for the last thirty years, right?

But apparently, he had. When I finally broke the silence by replying, “Voices. Voices, not oysters,” a look of realization washed over his face. “Oh, well that makes WAY more sense.”

And therein lies the true charm of the mondegreen: we find ourselves preferring the humor and silliness of the misheard version.

After all, you can’t simply go back to hearing “Hey, where did we go” after a friend enthusiastically belts out “HEY RODRIGO!” when Brown-Eyed Girl comes on the radio, can you?

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3 thoughts on “Listen close! Your ears are playing tricks on you…

  1. It has a name? Who knew? Someone I used to know thought that “Another one bites the dust” was “Number One box of dust.” I still giggle.

  2. Pingback: It’s Follow-Up Friday: Alice in Wonderland edition! | Blog

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