STEPHEN SMITH: Mondegreen Makes the Dictionary
I have an old friend who once played guitar in a rock 'n' roll band.
"We were playing this club one night," he told me, "and this woman comes up to me and asks, 'Can you play that song about slow-motion Walter, fire-engine guy?'"
My friend gave the lyric careful thought, but he couldn't recall a song about any slow-motion Walter.
"Can you hum a few bars?" he asked.
"Sure," she said, and began humming.
He recognized the tune immediately. The song was Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water," the chorus to which goes "Smoke on the water/ fire in the sky/ Smoke on the water...."
The confused woman couldn't believe she'd misunderstood the lyric. Somehow "smoke on the water/ fire in the sky" had become "slow motion Walter/fire-engine guy."
She'd experienced a "mondegreen" -- a word that was officially added to "Merriam-Webster Dictionary" last October.
It's about time we have a word for such misapprehensions. I've heard many stories about straightforward song lyrics that have somehow transformed themselves into something wholly other. In fact, I've suffered a few mondegreens myself.
My favorite involves a tune that was popular in the early '50s. I was about 5 years old and was in the habit of listening to an old Philco radio my sainted grandmother left playing all day long in her kitchen.
That was the summer everyone in my hometown was seeing flying saucers. Real or imagined, they seemed to fill the sky from June until September. There were stories in the newspaper about such sightings, and I heard my mother and grandmother talking on the phone with friends and neighbors who'd had close encounters.
I don't mind telling you that my 5-year-old self was scared witless. Every evening after supper my uncle would say, "Listen, shrimp" -- he called me "shrimp" because I was small -- "if you stay out too late, little green men will get you and take you away to God knows where."
To make matters worse, my grandparents subscribed to Life magazine, and one day I came across an issue that contained a drawing of little green men abducting a Dutch woman while her terrified companion fled into the woods. If it was in Life, it had to be true, and I could read just enough to make out the word "bolt" in the caption. The woman who had escaped the little green men had "bolted into the woods."
Now here's the convoluted part. I figured a shrimp was anyone who was small, including the little green men who'd abducted the Dutch woman. They were shrimps, weren't they? And now the mondegreen. The lyric to "Shrimp Boats" went: "Why don't 'cha hurry hurry hurry home?/ Why don't 'cha hurry hurry hurry home?/ The shrimp boats are comin'/ they're comin' tonight" -- which I mistook for "Why don't cha hurry hurry hurry home?/ The shrimp bolts are comin',/ they're comin' tonight."
A shrimp bolt was obviously one of those little green men depicted in Life magazine -- the little green men my uncle had been warning me about.
After supper on a summer evening in the early '50s, I was a pretty hard guy to find, but once I figured out the warning implicit in the lyric to "Shrimp Boats," I rarely ventured out after dusk. One evening on the front porch, I confessed my fears to my grandparents and my uncle. They stared at me incredulously -- and then burst into laughter. Lordy, how they laughed!
For the next couple of years, I was known affectionately as "Shrimp Bolt." Shrimp Bolt do this, shrimp bolt do that.
Now that's a mondegreen.
Contact Stephen Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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