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.
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.