Eggcorns, Mondegreens, and Memetic Mutation

The idea for this post was suggested by my friend Josh.

A mondegreen is a misheard song lyric. For instance, mishearing a line from a Scottish ballad – “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray and laid him on the green” – as, “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray and Lady Mondegreen.” Or Jimi Hendrix’s “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky” (“‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy”).

An eggcorn (named after a mishearing of “acorn”) is similar. Wikipedia and other sources disagree on the precise distinction between the two. But in both cases, you hear something wrong and it gets inscribed in your brain as correct, sometimes for years.

This has happened to almost everyone. It’s analogous, in a way, to genetic mutation. What’s meant to be an exact copy becomes a variation instead. (The knowledge equivalent of a gene is a “meme,” from the days before it referred to an Internet joke.) But memes, I think, have a much higher success rate in their mutation than genes do.

In many cases, I’ll mishear or misremember a song lyric, embrace my wrong version, and then be deeply disappointed when I hear what it’s supposed to be. From “Are You Gonna Be My Girl,” for instance, I thought for a long time that the line was “Big black boots / Long blonde hair / She’s so sweet / With her jet-black stare.” The real line is “…get back stare.” The real version is actually more creative, whereas my version is a cliche, but I still like mine better.

Likewise, the “Drift Away” line “Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul” was in my head for a long time as “Millions of people want to free my soul.” The original definitely makes more sense, but then, when has rock ever been about making sense?

Betsy is the queen of mondegreening. I love listening to her sing, because it seems like half the time, I get to hear a new version of the song. The line from “All the Right Moves” – “Do you think I’m special? Do you think I’m nice?” – has become, in her head, “Do you think I’m special? Do you think I’m smart?” She now knows that her version is “wrong,” but sings it anyway, every time. Like me, she just likes the variations better.

In some ways this is similar to the idea of fanon (fan + canon), where the listeners or readers or viewers decide for themselves what the song or story “really” is. And it’s as old as storytelling itself.

Where else do stories come from, after all, but older stories?

3 responses to “Eggcorns, Mondegreens, and Memetic Mutation

  1. “Where else do stories come from, after all, but older stories?”

    Certainly true of songs. The whole idea that a sums should have “right” and “wrong” lyrics (or melody or chords) is a very recent invention.

    Songs came from older songs, verses were added and removed, lyrics were mis-remembered, serious songs were switched around to make them funny, and so on.

    How many versions of “The House of the Rising Sun” are there? 🙂

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