If sweet dreams are made of cheese, Selena Gomez is farting ...

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WORD IN THE HAND: MONDEGREEN

If sweet dreams are made of cheese, Selena Gomez is farting carrots

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

Deputy features editor: Sunday Times

If ever you are feeling blue and a box of doughnuts does not help at all, look up “mondegreens” on the internet and you will immediately feel more cheerful. 

I may have mentioned the odd mondegreen before but the box of joy is bottomless and always worth revisiting for new toppings.

The word was inadvertently coined by American writer Sylvia Wright. In an essay for Harper’s Magazine in 1954, she told the story of how as a child she had misheard part of a Scottish ballad read to her by her mother. 

Instead of “They hae slain the Earl of Moray/And hae laid him on the green”, Wright heard: “They hae slain the Earl Amurray/And the Lady Mondegreen.”

Heaven knows how this caught on and became a meme before the advent of social media (and well before the coining of the word “meme”) but there you have it. Scores of websites are now devoted to the mondegreen. 

One of my all-time favourite mondegreens is the mangling of We Built This City (on rock ’n' roll), by the band Starship, known as Jefferson Starship in a previous incarnation (band names evolve just as language does, although rock ’n’ roll remains the same and hardly anyone ever gets the apostrophes right).

A friend of mine insists, and will brook no argument, that the song goes: “We built this city on the wrong damn road.” 

Who am I to argue? Arguing with a person about the words of a song they have sung along to incorrectly for years is about as productive as trying to tell a trance disciple that every piece of music in his beloved genre sounds exactly the same.

Someone thought the chorus of the Paul Young torch song was: ‘Every time you go away, you take a piece of meat with you.’

In 2016 the British music journal NME conducted a poll and published the top 40 most misheard song lyrics. One of them was the Starship song mentioned above, but most listeners heard it as: “We built this city on sausage rolls.” Perhaps my friend’s interpretation was influenced by living in Joburg.

Some mondegreens do not outlast their era. You might find millennials and Gen-Z-ers who are familiar with Elton John’s Hold Me Closer Tiny Dancer because it is one of those perennial ballads that will probably never die. But the mondegreen Hold Me Closer Tony Danza is not as evergreen. It’s what my friends and I thought the lyrics were when we were at school and Who’s the Boss? was on TV, but hardly anyone knows who Tony Danza is these days. (Alyssa Milano’s TV dad, okay?)

New mondegreens are born with every generation. Legions of her fans are convinced that on her 2015 album Selena Gomez sings: “I’m farting carrots.” (The actual lyric is “I’m 14 carats” but to be fair the backing track is quite loud.)

I had a trawl for mondegreens this week, because I was feeling blue and the doughnuts weren’t helping. One I’d not heard before came from someone who thought the chorus of the Paul Young torch song was: “Every time you go away, you take a piece of meat with you.”

This – as well as The Eurythmics’ “Sweet dreams are made of cheese” – is a good example of how a mondegreen can sometimes make more sense than the original lyric. 

“Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you” is a macabre line that should apply only to freaks like Jeffrey Dahmer and Hannibal Lecter. 

Taking some protein sustenance with you when you travel, on the other hand, is entirely understandable and advisable, as long as the sniffer dogs at foreign airports don’t catch you with a stuk of biltong in your pocket.

Incidentally, if you do guzzle a box of doughnuts while researching mondegreens, have a look in the mirror afterwards to see if your eyes have changed colour, because as Crystal Gale sang in 1979: “Doughnuts make my brown eyes blue.”

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