Misheard lyrics, and ‘overall’ criticism

I have two new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Mildew all around me, and other mondegreens looks at misheard song lyrics, including some famous, favourite, and personal examples:

Everyone’s experience of a song is unique, so new and idiosyncratic mondegreens keep appearing. Others are common enough to be famous in the field, like Jimi Hendrix’s ‘kiss this guy’, instead of kiss the sky. Some mondegreens might begin as accidents of perception but be amusing enough to then be deliberately adopted, replacing the original words. Wright herself [Sylvia Wright, who coined the term] wrote that they were ‘better than the original’, and some singers even embrace the mondegreens.

Among my favourites are ‘Shamu the mysterious whale’ (She moves in mysterious ways) and ‘R-G-S-P-E-P-P’ (R-E-S-P-E-C-T). I also summarise how they got the name mondegreens and explain the titular ‘Mildew all around me’, which is family lore. There are also great examples in the comments (‘All we are saying is kidneys and jam’).


This week’s post, Overall, there’s nothing really wrong with it, examines the use and criticism of the word overall. It’s part of a critical series at Macmillan on prescriptivism. I’m particularly interested in how long overall has been labelled a ‘vogue word’:

In The Complete Plain Words, first published 60 years ago, Ernest Gowers described as ‘astonishing’ the word’s growth in popularity, then spent two full pages showing how it was being used as a synonym for more than a dozen other words. A few years later, overall was described (fairly, I think) as a ‘vogue word’ in Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage. Vogue words are ‘faddish, trendy, ubiquitous words that have something new about them’, writes Bryan Garner in his Modern American Usage. One of the vogue words in this 2009 book is… overall. Just how long can a word be in vogue?

The post goes on to report other complaints about overall, weighs up the evidence, and offers advice on whether you should use it.

You can browse all my older posts for Macmillan Dictionary Blog here.


6 Responses to Misheard lyrics, and ‘overall’ criticism

  1. Charles Sullivan says:

    Misheard Lyrics: Sometimes I deliberately mis-state lyrics when I have an earworm stuck in my head. Could be a song I like or not. I’m prone to intentionally alter lyrics in the shower or when just walking down the pavement. I find it an amusing distraction.

    • Stan says:

      Charles: I do this too; it can be a lot of fun. One that comes to mind is Dan Deacon’s ‘Crystal Cat’, whose lyrics defied my comprehension for ages. I was reluctant to look them up and have my fun spoiled.

  2. alexmccrae1546 says:

    As a transplanted Canuck, having lived in the U.S for well-over three decades now, I used to get a little chuckle out of what I viewed as an intentionally forced mondegreen; namely, what sounds like “José can you see…” , a construing of the opening line of the American national anthem… which should go, “Oh say can you see…”

    Upfront apologies to any reader who might be offended by the upcoming visual conjured up in my noggin by that particular mondegreen. (My intentions here are not to offend, insult, or be racially insensitive.) But in hearing the ‘bastardized’ lyric, I picture a lone young Mexican named José. precariously perched atop a flag pole, looking yonder, the Stars & Stripes fluttering away in the prevailing breeze; perhaps presciently symbolic of the tenuous, long-over-due reform of U.S. immigration policy. (The ‘huddled new-immigrant masses’ no longer sequestered under the robe of Lady Liberty in NYC harbor.)

    Curiously, where I live here in Southern California, on one of the front-lines of this smoldering immigration issue, a little over 50% of our current L.A. County residents speak Spanish as their first language.

    I recall as a youngster growing up as an early ‘boomer’ in Toronto, Canada, where we would sing both God Save the Queen (for a short spell “the King”), and our national anthem, O Canada, first thing every regular school day morn. As early elementary school students, many kids couldn’t quite manage the opening phrase “O Canada… “, and would often throw in an extra “d”, where it would come out “O Can-da-da…” Really, no biggie. Actually rather sweet to my ear.

    These were some of the same kids who would ask their mums for another portion of ‘bisggetti’… not to be confuse w/ biscotti. Ha!

    • Stan says:

      Alex: I think O Can-da-da is quite sweet too. And while José can you see is probably deliberate a lot of the time, I’m sure there are many others who consider it the actual lyric. When I first learned the Irish national anthem, on a long car journey as a child, I memorised it by ear without knowing some of the Irish words; this led to some slight changes in delivery, but nothing particularly mondegreeny.

  3. “Shamu the mysterious whale’. I want to meet the person who misheard this, what a rich inner life they must have.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: