NEW YORK — Milk and spiders? Nine lazy Hansons? Sleep in heavenly peas?
It’s that time of year: holiday music time. And with holiday music comes all the strange and twisted things we sometimes think we’re hearing.
Mondegreens, the moniker for misheard words in song, aren’t restricted to holiday standards, of course, but the old-timey language of some seems to serve as a botched-lyric magnet.
Lest you think funny turns on song lyrics are the stuff of childhoods, Missy O’Reilly knows otherwise. She’s an actress, comedian and co-owner of Planet Rose, a karaoke haven on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“I’m the biggest Christmas nerd, so I’m always encouraging people to sing Christmas music,” she said. “Some people are really surprised when they see what the real words are.”
Look no further than Snopes.com for handy examples submitted by readers of the website that collects and debunks urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors and misinformation. Noting that mondegreens aren’t parody, but words we actually think we’re listening to, Snopes keeps a list of holiday gems.
For “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” there’s “Ten lawyers leaving” and “Nine lazy Hansons.” Later we’ve got “Six geezers laying,” along with “a paltry tin-affair tree.” Those are in lieu of lords a-leaping, ladies dancing, geese a-laying and the obligatory partridge in a pear tree, fyi.
If ever you’ve made it to the fourth verse of “Winter Wonderland,” you’ll be relieved to know it doesn’t include “Later on milk and spiders, as we dream by the fire,” but rather: “Later on we’ll conspire …” And that snowman you may or may not build in the meadow? You should pretend he’s “Parson Brown,” not “sparse and brown,” or “parched and brown.” Just sayin’.
There are most definitely no “peas” in “Silent Night,” but “heavenly peace.” In “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” the big guy in red does this: “making a list, checkin’ it twice.” Not this: “making a list, of chicken and rice.”
Sometimes, O’Reilly said, an entire holiday song is one big what?! She was thinking of the haunting yet beautiful — to the ears of some critics — “Fairytale of New York,” co-written by Shane MacGowen of the Celtic punk group The Pogues.
An Irish immigrant recalling a Christmas Eve stay in a New York City drunk tank tells of an inebriated older cellmate whose rendition of a traditional ballad spins the thickly brogued narrator (MacGowen) into a raunchy imagining of a debauched life with the old ditty’s female character.
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful song but people are always confused by what the words are,” O’Reilly said. “It’s really hard to decipher the words.”
Not to get all wonky, but the song isn’t really a mondegreen. Grant Barrett, co-host of the public radio show on language, “A Way with Words,” defines mondegreens this way, explaining they can happen for poetry and other spoken language as well:
“You’re mishearing where one word ends and another word begins. This is called misdivision. And sometimes you’re mishearing a word itself. It sounds like another word to you, and so you try to match that sound up with a word that you already know that kind of fits into the plot, if there is one. And that’s called reanalysis,” he said.
Don’t mind him. He’s a lexicographer, and he claims he has no mondegreens of his own.
“I misremember,” said Barrett, in San Diego. “That’s different. I always joke that I know the first 10 percent of thousands of songs and that’s it.”
The word mondegreen, he said, can be traced to Sylvia Wright and a column she wrote in Harper’s Magazine in 1954 titled, “The Death of Lady Mondegreen.” Wright discovered that for years she had botched the last line of the first stanza of the Scottish folk ballad “The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray.”
How it goes, with spellings based on updates of antiquated English: “They have slain the Earl of Moray, and laid him on the green.”
What she heard: “They have slain the Earl of Moray, and Lady Mondegreen.”
Babes are little mondegreen machines. Paula Werne, who works at a holiday theme park in Santa Claus, Ind., had one in her son, John, who is now 22.
As a tot of 3 he took to singing “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” to his stuffed animals out of a Christmas songbook, mom said. Only he turned “Christmas Eve is coming soon; now you dear old man,” into “dirty old man.”
Them’s fightin’ words in Werne’s town, but she and her husband let it go. “It was too cute and he was so happy that he knew all the words,” Werne said. “By the next year, he’d figured it out. I still sing it that way, though.”
Russell Rabut doesn’t have any mondegreens, but he is one.
The 22-year-old senior at San Diego State University, majoring in — what else, English — plays rhythm guitar in a band called The Mondegreens. He took the name to his band mates, all high school friends from Chico, Calif., after a fellow student in a creative writing class mentioned it.
“I had never heard of it before. It’s a very beautiful word and it’s cool how it came to exist,” he said. “It just seems like such an eloquent irony, that existing art can spin something poetic by accident.”
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