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Every turn a surprise... with misheard lyrics

Watching the Mamma Mia! musical a fortnight ago was one of the few times I had heard Abba's music sung in clearly enunciated English. The production, which celebrates the music of the Swedish pop giants, made me realise that the lyrics I'd grown up with weren't quite what I thought they were.

In the upbeat number Take A Chance On Me (1978), a middle-aged woman trying to charm the pants off her male counterpart tells him: "If you're all alone when the pretty birds have flown/Honey I'm still free/Take a chance on me..."

Wait, wasn't it supposed to be "If you're all alone, and it really hurts, let's go"?

I started second-guessing myself. Does the starlet in Super Trouper (1980) really sing "Facing 20,000 of your friends/How can anyone be so lonely"? Or does she mean "fans"? Who has 20,000 friends, anyway? And does Fernando have a rifle in his hand or a rival in his land?

We all mishear lyrics and English-singing Swedes are far from the worst culprits in producing hits that mislead.

Elton John's wacky Bennie And The Jets (1973) is one song that just begs to be misheard.

The evolution of language, clearly, has been the result of a series of happy (and not so happy) transgressions.

The lines "Oh, but they're weird and they're wonderful, Oh Bennie she's really keen/She's got electric boots, a mohair suit..." were hilariously butchered in the 2008 romantic comedy 27 Dresses.

"Oh, in the wind and the waterfall, Oh baby, she's a Revocaine," sing James Marsden and Katherine Heigl's characters in a drunken haze. "She's got electric boobs and mohair shoes..."

(In fact, there is a word for misremembered lyrics - mondegreens. But more of that later.)

Depending on how clogged your ears are, you may have heard Toto singing "I guess it rains down in Africa" (it's actually "I bless the rains down in Africa"), or Paul Young in his hit cover Everytime You Go Away telling his departing lover that "You take a piece of meat with you" ("You take a piece of me with you").

In a 2014 New Yorker article on the science of mondegreens, Maria Konnikova wrote that we are not usually tripped up by phonetics in a conversation or article because we know the context.

Songs and poems, however, "lie between conversational speech and a foreign language: we hear the sounds but don't have the normal contextual cues. It's not as if we were mid-conversation, where the parameters have already been set".

An old university professor once told us to memorise Shakespeare's sonnets because the way we misremember them tells us something about our own biases.

It's true that we often mishear things when they depart from the expressions we are more familiar with.

Watching a YouTube sing-along video for Disney's A Whole New World one night (don't ask me why), I was about to belt out the words "Every turn a surprise.../ Every moment gets better" when I saw the subtitles: "Every moment, red-letter".

Woah, what's a red letter? I had to look it up. A "red letter day", as it turns out, is a fancy way of saying "special day". And you thought these movies were for kids.

Of course, I wasn't alone. In the comments below the video, YouTube user Elizley P confessed what all of us (or at least, the 150 people who "liked" her post) had been thinking: "i've been singing 'every moment gets better' this whole time".

Is the original version always better?

The physical equivalent of mondegreens, I suppose, would be "desire paths" - the eroded paths, short cuts, trails of least resistance you will see cutting across any field lying in the way of a pedestrian and an MRT station.

Travel writer Robert Macfarlane describes desire lines as the "paths & tracks made over time by the wishes & feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning".

The desire paths in Singapore are often there for practical reasons - marking the site of a well-trodden road-crossing or simply offering the quickest route available, the hypotenuse to the right angles of concrete pathways.

Like busy pedestrians, the speakers of a language can, through the force of their collective will, carve out aural pathways that are more suited to their needs.

Think of this as a sort of beta-test, a way of smoothing out the kinks in the language for its future users.

Mishearings have often spawned new words: "Spitting image" (from spit and image), an adder (this snake was once called a "naddre"), newt (from "an ewt"), and nickname (originally "an ekename", which means "additional name").

Even the word "mondegreen" is a mondegreen. American writer Sylvia Wright came up with the term in 1954 because, when she was a girl, she misheard "and laid him on the green" from a Scottish ballad as "and Lady Mondegreen".

One of my friends enjoys spotting mistakes in news broadcasts and articles. (An American newspaper with the headline "Students get first hand job experience" being one unfortunate example.) Another slip-up involved a BBC presenter who said "with regards to" instead of "with regard to".

"This is quite sad," my friend told me, lamenting the rot that had crept into the last bastion of proper English.

I was ambivalent. If having a good grasp of grammar is nothing more than a mark of one's ability to follow a set of conventions, should we stick to the rules when the conventions have changed?

What sort of person uses "with regard to" anyway ? Why not just say "regarding?"

The evolution of language, clearly, has been the result of a series of happy (and not so happy) transgressions.

"Chinese helicopter", a derogatory Singlish term for a Chinese-educated person who is not good at English, is thought to have originated decades ago when some army men were mocked for not pronouncing words properly.

They explained in English that they were "Chinese educated", but unfortunately, their words ended up sounding a bit like "Chinese helicopter" - and the label stuck.

In 2016, for better or worse, "Chinese helicopter" found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary.

If you take away just one thing from this article (aside from my penchant for cheesy music and chick flicks), let it be this: Don't turn up your nose at the lowly mondegreen.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 25, 2018, with the headline 'Every turn a surprise... with misheard lyrics'. Print Edition | Subscribe