When I was young my father said to me: “Knowledge is Power….Francis Bacon”. I understood it as “Knowledge is power, France is Bacon”.
For more than a decade I wondered over the meaning of the second part and what was the surreal linkage between the two? If I said the quote to someone, “Knowledge is power, France is Bacon” they nodded knowingly. Or someone might say, “Knowledge is power” and I’d finish the quote “France is Bacon” and they wouldn’t look at me like I’d said something very odd but thoughtfully agree. I did ask a teacher what did “Knowledge is power, France is bacon” mean and got a full 10 minute explanation of the Knowledge is power bit but nothing on “France is bacon”. When I prompted further explanation by saying “France is Bacon?” in a questioning tone I just got a “yes”. At 12 I didn’t have the confidence to press it further. I just accepted it as something I’d never understand.
It wasn’t until years later when I saw it written down that the penny dropped.
Lard_Baron (On Reddit)*
Misinterpreting something you have heard is much more common than we care to think. In everyday communication it often goes unnoticed because the expression is not repeated but when it forms part of an oral text such as a poem, a saying or a song, it will usually be flushed out in the end, much to the surprise of the person who has invented the alternative version.
From my school days, I remember a hymn that went “I hope to follow Julie”. But we didn’t know who Julie was! In reality, the words were “I hope to follow duly”.
Rewordings of this kind are particularly common in pop music, it seems. In 2016 the NME published a long list of misheard song lyrics. Here are their top five:
- “Money for nothin’ and chips for free”. Correct lyric: “Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free” from Dire Straits’ ‘Money For Nothing’.
- “Every time you go away, you take a piece of meat with you”. Correct lyric: “Every time you go away take a piece of me with you” from Paul Young’s ‘Every Time You Go Away’.
- “Sue Lawley”. Correct lyric: “So lonely” from The Police’s ‘So Lonely’. (Sue Lawley was a UK TV presenter at the time.)
- “We built this city on sausage rolls”. Correct lyric: “We built this city on rock ‘n’ roll” from Starship’s ‘We Built This City’.
- “Saving his life from this warm sausage tea”. Correct lyric: “Spare him his life from this monstrosity” from Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.
Misheard song lyrics are so common that there is even a popular website that collects examples, kissthisguy.com, the name of which is itself a misheard Jimi Hendrix lyric.
The most common term for this phenomenon is “mondegreen”, a word with a rather literary heritage. According to Dictionary.com, Sylvia Wright coined this term in 1954. Wright reportedly believed that the first stanza of “The Bonnie Earl O’Moray,” a 17th century ballad, featured two unfortunate aristocrats:
Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where have ye been?
They have slain the Earl O’Moray
And Lady Mondegreen.
The correct phrasing of the fourth line is, “And laid him on the green.”
Mondegreens are interesting from a psycholinguistic point of view, throwing into relief how listening and giving meaning to what we hear is a creative process. The substitution of exotic content with more familiar words is an example of confirmation bias, according to some. The phenomenon can occur in any language. In Spanish it is known (unofficially) as a pomporruta. The Sinfaltas.com blog has collected some good examples, including these:
Que esta tarde también te llenará (pomporruta)
Que esta tarde de ambiente llenará (original)
(Atlético de Madrid song)
Te parto la boca (pomporruta)
Tu párvula boca (original)
(Piensa en mí, compuesta por Agustín Lara)
Un rayo misterioso, arácnido en tu pelo, luciérnagas curiosas (pomporruta)
Un rayo misterioso hará nido en tu pelo, luciérnagas curiosas (original)
(El día que me quieras, de Carlos Gardel)
Els errors de percepció auditiva en la llengua catalana (2015) is a final year project by Laura Berja at the University of Girona, who was able to collect various lyrical examples in Catalan, such as the following.
Vols venir, tu rabadà? (original)
Vols venir a tornar a badar.
«El rabadà», a Catalan Christmas carol, misheard by children
La dolça Adela va venir amb el mapa d’un lloc nou per descobrir. (original)
La dolça vela va venir amb el mapa d’un lloc nou per descobrir.
«Quin dia feia, amics», by Manel
Apparently mondegreens are a well-known phenomenon in German and in French, whose authors have often deliberately indulged in this kind of wordplay. For instance, the title of the 1983 French novel Le Thé au harem d’Archi Ahmed (Tea in Archi Ahmed’s harem) by Mehdi Charef is based on the main character mishearing le théorème d’Archimède (Archimedes’ theorem) in a maths class.
*I am grateful to Ricardo Muñoz for sending me this anecdote, which I am now glad to share with you.