Game of mondegreens

A mondegreen is a misheard song lyric, like ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ (instead of ‘. . . kiss the sky’). The word is itself a mondegreen, stemming from a mishearing of ‘laid him on the green’ as ‘Lady Mondegreen’ in an old ballad. I wrote about mondegreens for Macmillan Dictionary back in 2014.

Recently I discovered an elaborate one of my own. In my early teens I had a rave-music phase, playing a tape compilation continually for months (and baffling my parents, who were paying for classical piano lessons). This was years before I started clubbing, but something in the music’s rebellious energy and fun samples connected with me.

One of the highlights on that tape was a cartoon rave track named ‘Trip to Trumpton’ by Urban Hype. If you don’t know the song or the source of its samples – a children’s TV series from Britain – then I invite you to play a game: Before reading further, write down what you think the line at 0.42 is. It’s repeated four times:

Don’t overthink it or create a spectrogram or anything – just go with your first hunch. It doesn’t have to make sense. My interpretation certainly didn’t. Then let me know in a comment what you heard.

When I first listened to ‘Trip to Trumpton’, I thought the chant went, You, you, bomb in the groove, cut the devil, rock. That this was gibberish was irrelevant – lyrics often are – though it may not be a coincidence that a few of the words have musical associations. Anyway, once I inferred that lyric, it stuck.

So along I earwormed, You, you, bomb in the groove, cut the devil, rock, and later in the track several more refrains of bomb in the groove. Even when the words didn’t quite seem to match what I was hearing, they were close enough, and no substitutes were obvious enough to displace them. My brain was satisfied with its semi-arbitrary selection.

Decades later, on a YouTube nostalgia binge, I realized I surely had the lyric wrong. I had no idea how wrong. A little digging soon turned up Julia Eccleshare’s obituary for Alison Prince, an artist and children’s author who wrote a stop-motion series about a group of firemen in the imaginary town of Trumpton. Having grown up with just two Irish TV channels, I had never seen it.

Image from video of Trumpton shows seven toy firemen on or in a bright-red fire engine driving from left to right down a street. All the firemen wear blue uniforms with bright buttons, and shiny gold hats.

From the obituary:

Alison also had a problem with the firemen characters. With their uniform and near matching faces they all looked more or less the same. Her first job was to give them different identities. “I looked at the sequence over and over again and thought: Well, there’s one who looks a bit lanky. I’ll call him Dibble. Grub was the silly one who came tumbling in late, having obviously been interrupted halfway through a ham sandwich. Two were absolutely identical, so I felt they must be twins: Pugh and Pugh. Another one, who had a certain largeness of gesture, I imagined to be Irish. He became Barney McGrew.”

The bell that rings in ‘Trip to Trumpton’ turned out to be the fire station bell in Trumpton. And – you might see where this is going – what I took to be You, you, bomb in the groove, cut the devil, rock was a list of names for claymation firemen: Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub. Eureka! And a case study in the weird marvels of pattern recognition.

26 Responses to Game of mondegreens

  1. chhanks says:

    You, you bound in the groove, dump this Sybil rock

  2. chhanks says:

    My college roommate’s favorite spiritual, and stuffed animal, is:
    “Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear”

  3. She: You you bond in a groove captain fiddle rub

    Me: You you bum in the groove cut the jibble rock

    (It reminded me of “ Rock, rock to the planet rock, don’t stop.”)

  4. As a Briton I knew they were the names of the firemen, and I had most of them correct, but for many years I thought the first two were “Hugh, Pugh”. I was disappointed to discover it was “Pugh, Pugh”.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s funny how we get attached to certain ideas or connections and are thrown for a loop a bit when they’re upended. In this case too it reduced the novelty of what you had imagined.

      • Biscia says:

        Yes, I was very disappointed when I discovered that the Police song “Walking on the Moon” did NOT say “tomorrow’s another day: Tuesday,” which always made me smile. FWIW I heard “you, you, fun in the groove, cut the Sybil, rub.” I think those of us unfamiliar with Trumpton are primed to hear “groove” by the rave-music context.

        • Stan Carey says:

          “Tuesday” is an entirely plausible hearing of that part of the song, in terms of both meaning and sound. You’re probably right about the priming of “groove”; there also just aren’t that many words with a “groo” sound, groove being the only one I can think of with any solid musical connotations.

  5. Ugh. Never heard the song. I’m sure that being from the other side of the pond, I’ll make a mess of it. Plus listening on my cellphone and being…y’know, “of a certain age” and having listened to too much (loud) music…(I’m making excuses)…
    “You, you, bun in the groove, cut the civil rub” is the best I can do…LOL!!

    • Stan Carey says:

      Making a mess of it is intrinsic to the game! Every wild interpretation is a winner, as far as I’m concerned. Interesting that “in the/a groove” is proving so popular.

  6. John H says:

    As someone who grew up with Trumpton, with enjoyed occasional nostalgic revisits, I knew exactly what the words would be as soon as I heard ‘Pu..’ in that tone of voice. I can see why everyone has the interpretations they do, and it’s interesting (and funny) to observe the mental effort it takes to ‘allow’ myself to hear those alternate hearings.

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s good to get a reaction from someone so familiar with the names. Though I’ve never seen the show, we had similar ones in Ireland whose voices and soundbites are set indelibly in my memory. And yes – it’s fun to bend our perceptions to what other people are hearing in the list.

  7. Initial parsing: dew dew, bottom in the groove, cup of dibble, rub

    Actually got one word right. I blame the cartoon Top Cat for implanting the surname Dibble as a valid word into my brain at a young age.

  8. Christopher J. Henrich says:

    Do, do, butt-in-the-groove, cast a tibble rubbish.

  9. MaryAnn says:

    Hugh, Hugh, cut in the groove. Let this bubble rock!

  10. Was thinking as I read the comments. Back in 1998, the song “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” by Eiffel 65 came out, and there were different opinions as to the lyrics in the chorus. In case anyone wants to listen, I won’t mention some of the ones I heard; even some radio DJs were scratching their heads!

    • Stan Carey says:

      I always figured the chorus of that song was just slow scat singing, like in the title. But you’ve reminded me of another vintage mondegreen, immortalized in this radio clip:

  11. Edward Barrett says:

    I guess there’s some extra leeway (pun intended) when the song isn’t in your native tongue . . .

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUAaHkGpJy8

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