Oh, say, can you see by the dawnzer lee light?

I recently learned a new word: mondegreens. A “mondegreen” is, as defined by Wikipedia, “the mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase, typically a standardized phrase such as a line in a poem or a lyric in a song, due to near homophony, in a way that yields a new meaning to the phrase.”

The term was coined by Sylvia Wright, who said, “When I was a child, my mother used to read aloud to me from Percy’s Reliques, and one of my favorite poems began, as I remember:

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

The actual fourth line is “And laid him on the green”. As Wright explained the need for a new term, “The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.”

So the thing you have to understand about me is that I am absolutely terrible at understanding song lyrics. I have a LOT of trouble picking out words, even though words are often the most important part of a song to me because I’m a writer and not very musical. I frequently have to look up lyrics of a song I love, or it irks me EVERY TIME I hear the song. “STOP MUMBLING!” I shout at the radio. So I frequently have the experience of discovering that I was totally, 100% wrong about what a singer was saying.

I don’t know why it is that what I make up for myself is so often more satisfying to me that the real lyric. Is it just because I’m used to it, having listened to the song that way so many times? Or is it because, making it up myself, I naturally made it up in a way I liked, a way that resonated with me?

The most recent example is from Bob Dylan’s love song, “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” I love that song. I love it a lot. I love it so much that I love a whole OTHER Bob Dylan love song, “Sarah,” just because it has the line, “Staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel/Writing ‘Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you.” (This despite having no romantic feelings about Bob Dylan AT ALL, as he seems like kind of a jerk.) But I have always, always, ever since I first heard the song when I was 16, thought that the second line was, “And your eyes like smoke and your breasts like rhymes.”

Turns out it’s actually prayers like rhymes. Which, there’s nothing wrong with that as a line. It’s a nice line, even. But I loved my own interpretation. I thought it was the most romantic, sexy simile ever. (For a writer, I guess words are the most erotic thing someone can compare you to.)

And now I’ve heard it the right way and I’ll never be able to unhear it. And I’m kind of disproportionately saddened by that.

When’s the last time you’ve been disappointed by finding out the actual lyrics to a song?

2 thoughts on “Oh, say, can you see by the dawnzer lee light?”

  1. So there's this song Groovin by The Young Rascals and as a kid I was 100% certain that the part which goes,

    "Life would be ecstasy, you and me endlessly
    Groovin' on a Sunday afternoon"

    Was in fact about how it would be ecstasy for you and me and Leslie. Mine is WAY better.

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